Deputy premier must decide whether to fall in line on health-care reforms, Higgs says

Premier Blaine Higgs defended his government’s controversial health-care reforms Wednesday while trying to give two recalcitrant Progressive Conservative MLAs some room to oppose the decision — at least for now. 

Higgs said he won’t immediately fire Deputy Premier Robert Gauvin from his cabinet for publicly opposing the changes, which will see emergency departments in six small hospitals shut down from midnight to 8 a.m.

He also said he’s optimistic Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins backbench MLA Bruce Northrup won’t quit the PC caucus when he reveals what he called his “decision on which way I’ll be going” Thursday. 

As communities learn more about the reforms and realize they make sense, Higgs said, he hopes that Gauvin and Northrup will both come around.

“The reaction from the communities, who don’t know all the details at this point, is creating some angst, and I understand that their representatives have to be receptive to that,” he said in a news conference. 

PC MLA Bruce Northrup was confronted by protesters outside the Sussex Health Centre on Tuesday. Northrup said he was not consulted on the plan. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

Higgs acknowledged that Gauvin should be bound by the tradition of cabinet solidarity and resign or be fired for speaking against a government decision. 

“That is the system we operate under,” he said. 

But he said he recognizes the pressure that the deputy premier, his only francophone cabinet minister, is under.

“I’m sympathetic with it and I’m not going to overreact to it, because my goal is to fix the issues that are chronic in our province.” 

Even so, the premier said Gauvin “will have to make a decision in the coming days.”

What’s changing

The six hospitals affected by the changes are the Sussex Health Centre, the Sackville Memorial Hospital, Hotel- of St. Joseph in Perth-Andover, Stella-Maris-de-Kent Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Enfant- Hospital in Caraquet and the Grand Falls General Hospital.

The province and the two regional health authorities say the hospitals see an average of only five emergency department visits per night, most of them not actual emergencies.

By closing those departments at night, effective March 11, resources can be shifted to daytime, when doctors and new nurse practitioners will be able to see more patients. 

Deputy Premier Robert Gauvin, MLA Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, was dismayed by the health-care reforms announcement. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

As well, all 120 acute-care beds in the six hospitals will be reclassified as chronic care beds requiring a less intense, and less costly, level of care for seniors waiting for spaces in nursing homes.

The health authorities will also increase addiction and mental health services in the six communities where ERs will close at night. 

Opposition threat

The announcement sparked angry public reactions in the affected communities, and the opposition Liberals have vowed to bring down the minority government in the legislature and restore the emergency services.

Higgs denounced the Liberal position Wednesday, calling leader Kevin Vickers a “man without a plan” for not proposing an alternative way to deal with an aging population and a shortage of medical professionals in the health-care system.

The Liberals have 19 seats in the legislature, not including Speaker Daniel Guitard, who only votes to break ties. The PCs have 21 seats and the Greens and People’s Alliance each have three.

There are two vacant seats, Saint Croix and Shediac Bay-Dieppe, where Premier Blaine Higgs must call by-elections. 

Guitard told CBC News on Wednesday that he expects he’ll soon be asked to step down as Speaker so he can vote with his party to bring down the government.

“Personally I know a minority government lasts between 12 months and 18 months. This is 14 months already, 16 months, so I’m getting close to being pulled out of that chair, probably. That’s a presumption I’m making.”

Liberal MLA Andrew Harvey, whose riding includes one of the six affected hospitals, said he hopes Northrup and Gauvin will stand by their comments when the legislature resumes March 10. 

“It’s easy to say that but when we introduce our confidence motion in the house, maybe they’ll have to back up those words,” he said. “If they believe [the reform] is wrong, they have to stand behind their convictions.” 

Higgs said he’s prepared to lose power over the changes. “I am not here for the goodness of my health,” he said. “We have to fix our situation in the province. … If it costs us government, I’ll rest easy knowing we did what was right.” 

Communication complaint

On Tuesday Northrup told an angry crowd outside the Sussex Health Centre that the communications around the reforms had been “deplorable.”

“The chief of staff, the doctors, the nurses, the mayors from around this area, myself, the MP, should have been consulted a couple of months ago, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “It’s been a communication nightmare from my end.”

Horizon Health Network CEO Karen McGrath, Health Minister Ted Flemming and Vitalité Health Network CEO Gilles Lanteigne announced cuts to ER operating hours at six hospitals in New Brunswick on Tuesday. ( Poitras/CBC)

PC MLA Stewart Fairgrieve, the chair of the Tory caucus, said all backbench members on the government side attended a presentation to cabinet by the CEOs of the two regional health authorities.

“We were given access to that cabinet briefing, we were given an opportunity to ask any questions [of the CEOs] as well as the minister of health. So we had complete and open access to the briefings that were provided.” 

Hampton PC MLA Gary Crossman said the backbenchers “participated a bit. We’re not in cabinet so we don’t hear it and see it on a regular basis but  we’re kept informed as needed.”

Asked if he felt he’d been able to have his say about the reforms, he answered, “We were there at the table to ask questions if we needed to.”

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