400 Cape Bretoners come together to fight hospital closures
'There is flagrant disregard for the opinions of the physicians that work in these communities'
Doctors and people living in Cape Breton aren't giving up their fight against two planned hospital closures.
In June, Stephen McNeil's Liberal government announced plans to close the New Waterford and Northside hospitals. The premier further angered some Cape Bretoners when he told the legislature that anyone who spoke out against the plan was just making noise.
On Sunday, around 400 people crowded into North Sydney's Cape Breton County Exhibition Arena to oppose the hospital closures.
Some called for civil disobedience, while others urged citizens to send a strong message to the government.
Gordie MacDonald, president of the local postal union and emcee for the town hall meeting, said people's voices will be heard.
"We're not here for answers," he said. "We can't give you answers, because we don't know them. But what we can do for you today is to get your message to Stephen McNeil, [Health Minister] Randy Delorey, and this Liberal government, who seem to think that we are nothing but noise."
Dr. Stephanie Langley was one of several physicians who spoke out at the meeting. She's been a family doctor in North Sydney for 21 years and medical site director at the Northside General Hospital for the last decade.
She said after working with the old district health authority for years before the 2015 amalgamation that created the Nova Scotia Health Authority, she was disappointed to learn about the proposed hospital closures through the media.
"Since this new health authority has taken shape, it feels like we are constantly working an uphill battle," Langley said.
"Decisions about your health care are being made by executives that live in Halifax. There is flagrant disregard for the opinions of the physicians that work in these communities."
While access to primary care is the top concern in the province, Langley said, people should also be worried about the loss of acute care hospital beds in North Sydney and New Waterford.
When he announced the closures in June, McNeil said Northside General and New Waterford Consolidated will be replaced by community health centres, while Glace Bay Hospital and Cape Breton Regional Hospital will be expanded.
The new community health centres will include spaces for collaborative family practice teams, but will not have emergency rooms.
Dr. Margaret Fraser and Dr. Joan Salah also addressed the crowd Sunday. Fraser said services have continuously eroded at the North Sydney hospital, with the emergency room often closed due to doctor and nurse shortages, and patients being left in hallways because there are no acute care beds open.
In October, the Northside hospital ER will be open for nine days and closed for 22, she said, and the numbers aren't any better in New Waterford and Glace Bay.
That's "unacceptable," Fraser said.
Three Cape Breton regional municipal councillors also spoke at the meeting. North Sydney councillor Earlene MacMullin got a standing ovation after her speech.
She said the province needs to properly consult the affected communities, and people need to send the government and health authority a strong message.
"Until you have the decency and respect to lay it out for us, give us a timeline, promise that we will have the physicians we need and the services we need, don't bother coming, because we will push you out."
New Waterford area councillor Kendra Coombes also got the crowd going. She said the government hasn't heard any noise yet.
"Here's what they don't get," Coombes said. "The harder you push a Cape Bretoner, the harder we fight back."
Some members of the audience also got to have their say. One person suggested blocking the highway to get attention. Another urged organizers to charter a bus so people could take their displeasure to the legislature in Halifax.
MacDonald, the emcee, didn't rule anything out. He said organizers would consider the suggestions.
In the meantime, a petition is going to the legislature later this week asking the government to put a stop to the hospital closures. It also asks government to widely consult community members and health-care providers before making any final plans.