FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's premier concedes that the growing backlash to health-care reforms including closing the emergency rooms of six community hospitals during the overnight hours may hurt him politically.
A defiant Blaine Higgs addressed reporters Wednesday, saying his government is convinced it is doing the right things to ensure the sustainability of the health-care system.
"We have to fix our situation in our province, and we have to make decisions that are not popular, but people can understand the facts and the reason," Higgs said.
But Dr. Hubert Dupuis, president of Egalite sante en francais — a group that lobbies for equal health services for francophone New Brunswickers — said the changes are irresponsible.
"If there is a critically ill patient in rural New Brunswick, they need to be able to get into an emergency room. We are talking about their health and their lives," Dupuis said Wednesday.
He said the move will lead to the defeat of the Tory minority, and accused the province's health networks of being "puppets of the Higgs-Austin government."
Dupuis was referring to the minority Progressive Conservative government, which is being supported on confidence votes by the People's Alliance party led by Kris Austin.
Karen McGrath, CEO of the province's English-language health authority Horizon Health, said Tuesday the six affected ERs were only seeing an average of five patients per night, and most of those were not emergencies.
McGrath and Vitalite Health CEO Gilles Lanteigne said the hospitals were also chosen because they were within 75 kilometres of another hospital with a 24-hour emergency department.
Dupuis said that's still too far for someone with a health emergency to go, and the drive to get emergency care should be no more than 30 minutes.
"I don't think that people will stand for this. I think there's going to be a movement that's going to start. I think this government, being a minority government, is gone. I think this government is going to fall on this," Dupuis said.
Effective March 11, emergency departments in Sussex, Sackville, Perth-Andover, Ste-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet and Grand Falls will be closed from midnight to 8 a.m.
The six impacted communities will get added mental health services, and 120 acute care beds will be converted to long-term chronic care beds, mainly for seniors awaiting a nursing home.
Health Minister Hugh Flemming said Tuesday the changes were needed to improve care and address a shortage of human resources.
A number of protests were held outside the affected hospitals on Tuesday, and Opposition Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said his party would try to topple the government.
"We at the very first opportunity will do everything in our power to bring down this government to ensure the health and safety of our citizens of New Brunswick," he said.
Higgs said Vickers didn't attend a briefing from the government on the reforms, and accused the Liberal leader of lashing out without the facts.
"It's politics at its worst and it's exactly why our province is in the state it's in — decisions without facts," Higgs said.
A number of Higgs' own MLAs have expressed concerns with the reforms, but the premier said he believes they'll be supportive once they see the changes working.
Green Leader David Coon wouldn't say if he would vote against the government on any confidence motion over the health reforms.
"I'm not the kind of person who goes around making threats all over the place like that. We need to convince the government to reverse its decision," he said.
The changes are being made by the regional health networks and don't need to come before the legislature for approval.
The current standings in the Legislative Assembly are 21 Tories, 20 Liberals, three People's Alliance members and three Greens. There are two vacancies and Higgs has said he'll announce the dates for the byelections in March.
Liberal members of the legislature's public accounts committee have brought forward a motion calling on Health Department officials and the two health network CEOs to answer questions about the reforms.
"These cuts will put the health of many New Brunswickers at risk and we need the government to explain why it is taking such drastic action," said Liberal MLA Lisa Harris.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2020.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press