New Brunswick premier admits 'gaps' in scrapped plan for overnight ER closures

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says criticism of his government's decision to close emergency rooms overnight in six community hospitals exposed serious gaps in the plan and led him to reverse course.

"I can't in good conscience move forward without addressing the concerns and fears that have been brought to light," Higgs told a news conference Monday.

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Higgs issued a statement Sunday night saying he was cancelling the closures, scheduled to take effect next month, in order to allow for community consultations.

Since it was announced Feb. 11, the plan has drawn criticism from the affected communities, health professionals, opposition parties and members of his own minority Tory government.

The reforms were intended to address a shortage in human resources and an aging population. They would have seen an increase in mental health services in the communities and the conversion of acute care beds to long-term care for patients awaiting nursing homes.

Higgs said the changes raised many questions that could not be answered.

"I didn't expect that there would be so many gaps in the rollout plan, and gaps that people legitimately identified that could not be legitimately answered," he said. Higgs said he was even told that the provincial ambulance service had not been consulted.

As a result, he met Sunday with representatives of the two regional health authorities. "Their recommendation was not to proceed at this time," Higgs said.

He said he will visit the communities with the affected departments — Sussex, Sackville, Ste-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet, Grand Falls and Perth-Andover — in April and May to get the views of leaders, health-care providers and citizens.

The government is also planning a summit in June aimed at ensuring the province's health-care system is sustainable and reliable. "This must also address the challenges faced in the rural communities," Higgs said. The recommendations from the summit are to be released in the fall.

The decision to halt the changes follows deputy premier Robert Gauvin's announcement Friday that he was quitting in protest over the reforms to sit as an Independent. It left the minority government in the precarious position of facing a confidence vote or possibly calling an early election.

Higgs said his reversal had "turned down the temperature" on the prospect of an early election, but he would be discussing the situation with his caucus later this week.

Gauvin's departure left the Tories and Liberals tied with 20 seats in the legislature. The Green party and the People's Alliance each have three, Gauvin is the lone Independent and two seats are vacant.

Green Leader David Coon said Higgs had done the right thing by cancelling the changes, adding that he looked forward to making recommendations for health reform.

Last week, both the Greens and Liberals said they were prepared to defeat the government on a confidence motion, but on Monday Coon toned down his position. "These changes are on the shelf right now," he said, "so until we see how that works out, it changes the water on the beans."

But Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers expressed his continued opposition to the government.

"Premier Higgs has lost credibility and the trust of New Brunswickers over the health-care cuts fiasco. These cuts and further cuts to health care are still very much part of the Blaine Higgs agenda," Vickers wrote on Twitter. "His surprise from the controversy over the last week shows just how out of touch he is with New Brunswickers."

Kris Austin, leader of the People's Alliance, which had also opposed the closures, welcomed the government's reversal. He said the necessary support systems, including advance care paramedics, were not in place to provide for care in the overnight hours.

Dr. Chris Goodyear, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said there were too many unanswered questions for the closures to go ahead.

"We observed since the announcement that many physicians and citizens expressed passionate and thoughtful views about the implications of these changes," he said in a statement. "Many agreed that our health system must be modernized to reflect the population needs of our province and that stakeholders must have a voice prior to decisions being made."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2020.

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