Two stories about healthcare cuts and Horizon CEO Karen McGrath

Karen McGrath, president and CEO Horizon Health Network in the atrium at Sackville Memorial Hospital

“I’ve always wanted to be a CEO of a hospital,” Karen McGrath told the Advertiser, the newspaper in the small town of Grand Falls-Windsor as she reminisced in January 2013 about her six years as Chief Executive Officer at Newfoundland and Labrador’s central health authority.

“The position as CEO of Central Health was my dream,” said McGrath, who now serves as President and CEO of the Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick.

“I had many hospitals. I had two referral centres and many other smaller hospitals,” she told the Advertiser. “I can generally say by and large that I was living a dream. Every day I came to work I enjoyed the challenges that were presented to me.”

When she spoke those words seven years ago, McGrath was leaving one of those challenges behind as she prepared to take up her new post as President and CEO of the Georgian Bay General Hospital (GBGH) in Midland, Ontario.

A week after the Advertiser published its story about her departure, the newspaper covered one in a series of protest rallies held in several communities.

“Armed with brightly coloured signs, supporters braved the cold Thursday morning to gather in front of the Carmelite House long-term facility in Grand Falls-Windsor,” the paper reported.

It explained that registered nurses and their supporters were protesting against a plan, announced several months earlier and backed by McGrath, to cut the number of RNs on the overnight shift from two to one at nearly all rural clinics, health centres and long-term care facilities in central Newfoundland.

The Advertiser quoted Debbie Forward, president of the provincial nurses’ union, saying she had been assured that the number of nurses would not change because RNs would be moved around, but she worried that reducing overnight staffing levels would affect patient safety.

“That’s fine for the nurse, they’ll still have a job, but it’s the impact on healthcare in these communities,” she said.

“As you decrease the number of registered nurses within a facility, you increase the incidence of infections, of falls, of urinary tract infections, respiratory infections,” Forward said on the day a 4,500 signature petition against the nursing cuts was presented to the provincial House of Assembly.

But in spite of continued protests, the nurses lost their fight and today, the RN staffing reduction is still in effect, one of many instances in which frontline healthcare workers and their supporters were overruled by cost-conscious administrators and the politicians they serve.

However, as the next stage of Karen McGrath’s career illustrates, it doesn’t always work out that way.When McGrath took over as President and CEO at Georgian Bay General Hospital in 2013, GBGH was facing serious financial problems. The consulting firm, Geyer and Associates, was hired in 2015 to conduct an operational review.

Its report noted that the hospital had a long-term debt of $10 million and it called for reductions in expenses of $5.2 million.

Among other things, the consultants recommended closing the hospital’s maternity ward, cutting surgery times, removing beds in the intensive-care unit and shutting down the cafeteria.

According to the Midland Mirror, McGrath said that the measures would ensure the hospital stayed open. “This is not death by a thousand cuts,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “We are planning that this will make us stronger and position us to grow in the future.”

A storm of opposition followed from members of the public who were especially upset over the plan to end childbirths at the hospital.

Doctors warned that GBGH might not survive the proposed cuts and that First Nation and francophone communities had not been consulted about them.

The nurses’ union wrote to the local paper saying the cuts could lead to increased suffering and even death while the local member of the legislature, who also happened to be the leader of the opposition, tabled a petition with almost 16,000 signatures calling on the provincial government to stop the cuts.

About 10 months after the recommendations were made public, the hospital board voted against implementing most of them which meant that GBGH would need to find other ways to trim its deficit of about $1.2 million.

“We have not identified other areas in terms of savings. This is the challenge ahead,” the local paper quoted McGrath as saying in October 2016. “Since we’re not really doing any of the cost-savings things the report recommended, it will still leave us with the shortfall we had before the report was released.”

About two weeks later, McGrath announced her departure to become President and CEO of the Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick, a job with increased responsibility and substantially higher pay.

Public documents show that in her last full year at GBGH, McGrath was paid $208,565.44 while the latest figures from the New Brunswick government show her earnings in 2018 at Horizon Health fell within the range of $275,000 to $299,999.

Now, McGrath finds herself embroiled once again in an outcry over cuts that according to CBC, were actually much milder than ones proposed in 2014 before she joined Horizon.

The minority Conservative government has postponed the latest cuts for now, but both Premier Higgs and McGrath say that something will have to be done to make health care here “sustainable,” especially in light of looming shortages of healthcare workers.

During a news conference in Sackville last week, McGrath was asked how she would compare New Brunswick healthcare with the services delivered in the two other provinces where she has worked.

“I think we have a superior system in New Brunswick,” she answered. “It is a system that is focussed on quality and safety. It is a system, though, that is starting to show cracks,” she added. “That is forcing us I think to make some hard decisions that are not popular.”

It remains to be seen, of course, how the healthcare system’s “cracks” get repaired and whose “hard decisions” are finally implemented.

As an online essay by Dr. Chris Goodyear, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society shows, there are sharp divisions, once again, between frontline caregivers and the senior administrators and politicians who oversee the healthcare system.

Posted in Health care, New Brunswick government, Town of Sackville | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Commentary: Community hospitals have ‘a duty to the living’

by Alexander (Sandy) Burnett

Alexander (Sandy) Burnett

Horizon Health CEO Karen McGrath seemed perplexed last week.

Faced with questions from the public and the press about planned reductions in service at six small-town hospitals across New Brunswick, her standard answer suggested a serious lack of understanding of the sense of community ownership that has fostered the development of healthcare in this province for over a century.

“This is not a consultative process,” she declared. “This is me… coming up with a plan.”

In fairness, Ms. McGrath, who has degrees in Business Administration and Social Work, speaks from the perspective of a seasoned administrator. Before her arrival in New Brunswick three years ago, she had more than 10 years of experience as a CEO, at the Georgian Bay General Hospital in Midland, Ontario, the Central Health Authority in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Ontario Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Sad to say, such employment does not seem to have prepared her very well for public engagement and accountability.

That is unfortunate, as she now finds herself face to face with the passionate belief of local citizens in Sackville, Sussex, Perth-Andover, Grand Falls, Caraquet, and Richibucto that they have the right to participate in decisions affecting the healthcare facilities of their communities. And as of the weekend, even Premier Higgs reluctantly conceded the point.

Before getting embroiled further in head-to-head debate with a significant percentage of the population, Ms. McGrath might do well to inform herself about the history of community engagement that underlies such fierce opposition to her seemingly inflexible position.

Six years ago, I was commissioned by the Tantramar Heritage Trust to write a history of local healthcare, later published under the title A Duty Toward the Living.

I drew that title from a letter to the editor of the Sackville Tribune, written by William B. Fawcett and published on March 10, 1919. In it, he applauded the idea of establishing a community hospital as a memorial to soldiers lost in the First World War, and backed it with a pledge of $10,000 (about $144,000 in today’s currency) to start the ball rolling.

Explaining his gift, he stated, “Outside of all the sentiment surrounding the idea of a monument to the dead…I believe Eastern Westmorland is in even greater need of such a Public Hospital as a duty toward the living.”

It would be another 25 years before the Sackville Memorial Hospital finally opened its doors, but the concept that the community at large had “a duty to the living,” has remained central to Sackville’s view of healthcare from that day to this.

Sackville Memorial Hospital officially opened in August 1946

Throughout that century, the people of Sackville and eastern Westmorland County have consistently embraced that sense of duty by way of selfless volunteer service on boards, committees, the Auxiliary, and the Hospital Foundation, and through generous support of fundraising. Their goal? To build, maintain, and enhance a place where the health and wellness needs of the community could be met or, if need be, effectively referred to other centres for more advanced care.

Some of those efforts were as down-to-earth as donating locally made jams and jellies to the hospital kitchen to sweeten the breakfast toast served to patients. Others were as complex as the raising of millions of dollars over the years to purchase life-saving equipment for local use. Small wonder that members of the Tantramar community, from Dorchester to Cape Tormentine and beyond, have a proprietary sense of “their” hospital.

The editor of the Tribune-Post summed up that attitude in an editorial published on September 29, 1960: “We must remember that the Sackville Memorial Hospital is our hospital, built by the community and controlled by a Board of Trustees made up of local people who give of their time and energy without any remuneration. It is an institution in which the people of the community take justifiable pride. We want to continue to control its administration and operation. Our only means of keeping it that way is to maintain and strengthen local interest.”

In the years that followed, with the introduction of Medicare and a steadily expanding role for federal and provincial governments in providing state-of-the-art healthcare across Canada, that dedicated local commitment was enhanced by massive support from the higher levels. But the sense of local ownership and accountability never diminished.

In May 1986, the Board of the Sackville hospital adopted a new mission statement in which that determination was clearly evident: “The hospital provides primary medical, emergency, obstetrical, surgical, and ambulatory care, supported by diagnostic and consultative services; enhances access to secondary and tertiary care through integration with the larger health system; and maintains contact with discharged patients to ensure continuity of care.”

A year later, hospital administrator Neil Ritchie put it this way: “Family medicine is still our focus. Your family doctor is still in the best position to decide what health service you need. We [the hospital] are here to support the community and to enhance the ability of the family doctor to deal with your problems.”

That sense of mission saw a new hospital built and opened on its present site April 1, 1988, its operation supported and sustained locally by the Foundation, the Auxiliary, and local citizens and service clubs. And it guided responsible management into the bargain. At the 1990 annual general meeting of the Sackville Memorial Hospital, it was reported that the institution had ended the fiscal year in the black on an operating budget of over $5 million. In the course of that year it had supported 13,803 days of in-patient care, 32,000 outpatient visits, 2,986 clinic visits, and 1,022 day-surgery procedures.

It came as a shock, then, in March 1992, when provincial health minister Russ King announced the dissolution of the hospital’s Board of Trustees and a reduction in local services, amalgamating all independent hospitals within new regional authorities.

Board chairman David Jones reported it this way to a sombre meeting in Sackville: “Effective April 1, this board has no more power and no more purpose. I attended a meeting in Fredericton today. I was there to represent not only this board but all previous boards that helped build Sackville Memorial Hospital and make it what it is. And there was not one word of acknowledgment of those volunteers.”

It is significant that, despite that takeover 28 years ago, despite the consolidation of eight regional authorities into two province-wide networks (Horizon and Vitalité) and despite the transfer or reduction of some services, community loyalty has remained strong. The people of Tantramar have sustained a healthy desire to influence, support, and enhance “their” system, raising millions of dollars to keep the Sackville Memorial Hospital at the forefront of community medical care.

In view of this vital record of involvement, it should have come as no surprise to Ms. McGrath, her associates, and her political masters in Fredericton, that this community and others expect and demand open and constructive consultation on how best to achieve needed adjustments to the healthcare system.

She herself, on taking up her duties as CEO of Horizon, stated: “Engagement is the key to success — with patients, staff, physicians, and our communities.”

At the time, that sounded like a commitment to a consultative process. The supporters of small community hospitals across New Brunswick expect no less.

Alexander (Sandy) Burnett has lived in Sackville since 1978. Formerly employed as a teacher and with the National Film Board of Canada, he has been a freelance writer and communications consultant since 1984, working for a wide range of clients, among them the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ducks Unlimited Canada, and the World Wildlife Fund. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications including Canadian Geographic, Equinox, Harrowsmith and Nature Canada. He is the author of a number of books, among them: On the Brink: Endangered Species in Canada; A Passion for Wildlife: The History of the Canadian Wildlife Service; and A Duty Toward the Living: A History of Healthcare in Tantramar.

Posted in Commentary, Health care, New Brunswick government, Town of Sackville | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Sackville rally hears fight against hospital cuts is not over yet

For the second time in four days, hundreds gathered today outside Sackville Memorial Hospital to oppose cuts to medical services there.

Sackville Mayor John Higham told the crowd that Premier Higgs’s announcement last night that the government would not close the emergency room overnight, starting on March 11th, may be only a temporary reprieve.

Mayor John Higham addressing today’s rally

“It sounds like a breathing delay to get to the next election,” Higham said. “It only says we’re going to think about it.”

The mayor urged people to keep up the pressure and maintain solidarity against any cuts to hospital services.

“Fifty per cent of this province is prepared to fight,” Higham said in an apparent reference to rural New Brunswickers, who would be most affected by government cuts to smaller hospitals.

“Fifty per cent of this province is prepared to bring positive alternatives…to address the underlying issues, but to do it with community strengths, not defeating the community and taking away its strengths.”

‘Community continues to stand up’

Local MLA Megan Mitton confirmed that the Higgs government has also backed down on closing all of the Sackville hospital’s acute-care beds as well as the operating room where day surgeries are performed.

MLA Megan Mitton

“This is good news for now,” she said.

“We can take a little bit of a breath, but we are not out of the woods because what I heard Premier Higgs saying in the press conference he held this morning,” she added, “was that they still think this is a good plan and they just didn’t communicate it well and there were a few gaps, but they still think this is a good plan.”

Mitton said she would be helping to organize community meetings so that people will be ready to suggest their own solutions if Higgs keeps his promise to visit the town to discuss health-care reforms.

“Successive governments have threatened this hospital,” she said, “and our community continues to stand up and say ‘no, we deserve to have health care services in our rural communities. We will not accept losing the health care services that we need and deserve.'”

L-R: Sylvia Morice, Barb Wheaton (behind), Faye Hicks and Les Hicks hold placards criticizing Premier Higgs and Horizon CEO Karen McGrath

Two doctors speak out

Recently retired family doctor Ross Thomas told the rally that the plan to cut hospital services in Sackville was what he termed “at best, half-baked.”

He wondered how the already overcrowded emergency room at the Moncton Hospital could cope with an influx of patients from Sackville and pointed out that Moncton patients now travel to the Sackville ER to avoid long wait times in the city.

Dr. Ross Thomas

“What is the justification for closing the OR (operating room) in Sackville?” Thomas asked.  “Is there an OR in Moncton empty, staffed, waiting to take the capacity from Sackville?”

He answered a chorus of “Nos” from the crowd with a resounding “No” of his own.

“Is there compelling evidence that our OR is expensive?” he asked. “No evidence presented,” he answered.

“And finally, is there evidence that doing health care in cities is good for rural Canadians? Absolutely to the contrary,” he said, noting that the TransCanada highway runs both ways between Moncton and Sackville.

“Since 80 to 90% of health care costs are generated in our three big cities, it would seem to me to make sense to look there if you’re trying to save money,” Dr. Thomas concluded.

He ended by introducing his medical colleague Allison Dysart who, he said, has been told by the Horizon Health Network not to speak publicly about the planned hospital cuts.

Dr. Dysart himself said he was not speaking on behalf of anyone other than himself.

“Hopefully, this disclaimer will keep me from getting fired,” he added.

Dysart pointed out that generations of “dedicated townspeople, nurses and doctors” had created the Sackville hospital over the last hundred years or so.

“It wasn’t Blaine Higgs that built this hospital,” he said. “It was the people of Sackville that built this with help from the government.”

He added that it had been a “really hard week” for all staff at the hospital including “the dedicated, fantastic nurses I work with, many of whom were sent layoff notices on Friday,” he said to audible gasps from the crowd.

“What a farce,” Dysart said.

Dr. Allison Dysart

He noted that the Sackville emergency room was closed overnight Friday because only seven doctors are left to cover 14 ER shifts a week.

“And despite the numbers that the government and Horizon were citing about how many patients register in our emergency room after midnight, the fact is that we often don’t get finished up until two or three in the morning with patients who registered well before midnight,” Dysart said, adding that those patients are not included in the official statistics.

He warned that many more ER closures are likely, adding that mismanagement by successive provincial governments has resulted in an “an acute shortage of doctors and nurses with no quick solution in sight.”

Dysart said that “top-down” organizations like the Horizon Health Network always talk about the need for better communication, but never seem willing to listen to the concerns and ideas of medical staff.

“Communication is a two-way process,” he added, “so, my plea is for decision-makers to try this other, rare part of communication, the listening part and then maybe we can find some real solutions to our health-care challenges without scapegoating people who live in rural New Brunswick.”

Mt. A. concerns

Robert Inglis, Vice President of Finance at Mount Allison told the rally that the university’s 2,100 students as well as its 500 faculty and staff need access to a 24-hour hospital emergency room.

He pointed out that Mt. A. is primarily an undergraduate university with students in the 18-24 age range — a group at risk for the onset of mental-health issues that could require the need for medical help 24/7.

“In addition, as we all know, the majority of our students don’t have cars and have moved to Sackville away from their families to attend university,” Inglis added, “so, emergency care within walking distance is essential.”

He said the lack of such care would severely hamper Mt. A’s student recruitment efforts.

“The prospect of significantly reduced emergency services represents a real threat to recruit and retain students to our campus from New Brunswick, from across Canada and indeed from around the world,” Inglis said.

To listen to the speeches at the rally click on the media player below. The moderator, who introduces the speakers, is Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken. The recording begins with remarks by Mayor John Higham.


Posted in Health care, New Brunswick government, New Brunswick politics, Town of Sackville | Tagged | 1 Comment

Commentary: Too many unanswered questions about cuts at Sackville Memorial Hospital

by Kathy Hamer (Edwards)

Kathy Hamer (Edwards)

Probably everyone in rural New Brunswick knows that our access to health care is likely to require some travel, even for routine appointments with a family doctor. We are not so naive as to think the full range of medical care will be available in every community of any size. We’re nothing if not fairly realistic. Living here has made us that way.

But there are limits to what we are prepared to accept. The premier urges us to examine the details of proposed changes to hospital services. We would if we could: however, at this point, we have more questions than answers, especially given Horizon Health CEO Karen McGrath’s preference for avoiding a main-door exit from the Sackville hospital where she would have faced an anxious public on Thursday.

We are told that acute-care beds in Sackville will be converted to beds for the long-term care patients now accommodated in the larger hospitals. Can anyone at Horizon Health explain the logic of moving these patients to Sackville or Sussex, further away from family and friends, while moving acute-care patients to Moncton, and thus also further away from familial and social “safety nets”? Will the shuffle of patients meet the needs of those in long-term care? Will it release enough beds to accommodate all acute-care patients in the regional hospitals? We know that currently at least the three largest hospitals are operating at or well beyond capacity much of the time.

We are concerned about added travel time, especially in emergencies. Ms. McGrath has cited St. Joe’s (Saint John) and Oromocto hospitals as evidence that the proposed changes work. She neglects to add that each of these facilities is within little more than 10 or 15 minutes’ drive from full-service hospitals – the Regional in Saint John and the Chalmers in Fredericton. How do these distances compare with travel from Cape Tormentine to Moncton?

Both the NB Medical Society and the paramedics have expressed concerns about the fragility of existing ambulance services and the risk of adding new demands to an already stretched system. When and how will ambulance services be adjusted to ensure adequate service delivery? Will rural patients be forced to shoulder the additional financial burden of ambulance or taxi costs to receive ER service?

Ms. McGrath has claimed that doctors will now be able to see many more patients during the day, since ER services will be closed at night. Can she explain just how they will accomplish this in the face of already full-to-bursting patient loads? How exactly are nurse practitioners to be integrated into the current system?

Has Ms. McGrath considered the potential impact of the proposed changes on the Amherst hospital, which provides service to many residents of the Sackville area? That facility was blindsided by Tuesday’s announcement, just as were our own municipal councils and medical community. How will Amherst accommodate any increase in demand for services in its already overcrowded hospital?

What of the more than 2,000 university students in Sackville who rely on hospital access as much as our full-time citizens, and who, moreover, are unlikely to have spare funds to pay for ambulance or taxi travel to Moncton or Amherst? What timely access to needed services can they expect? After all, as one student commented on Thursday, “we die too.”

What about recruitment and retention of medical professionals? The medical programs training doctors in New Brunswick were created with two objectives in mind: to offset the likely rate of retirements among doctors, and to ensure better access to physician care in rural areas. How likely will new doctors be to come to communities where, among other potential limitations, they can’t even admit their own patients to a local hospital and oversee their ongoing care? How easily will nurses be able to move to positions elsewhere, especially if a move means uprooting a whole family?

Has anyone considered potential “downstream” effects of the changes? Sackville has welcomed a number of newcomers from more urban areas of the country; one factor in their decision to move here has been the presence of a hospital providing a good range of basic services and care. The attractiveness of this community and many others in New Brunswick risks being seriously undermined if access to health care is perceived as insufficient.

The communications fiasco that has accompanied the roll-out of these changes provides an excellent case study in how not to develop and announce challenging new directions. The word was out informally by Monday, February 10, and Sackville town council discussed it that evening; the formal announcement was made on Tuesday; a full-page ad appeared in local papers only on Wednesday; and not until Thursday was Ms. McGrath available to meet our local hospital administration and staff, the medical community and our municipal and university representatives — though remaining invisible otherwise. Her defense of the changes, published only yesterday in the Telegraph-Journal, is as detail-free as the ads featured earlier in the week.

Rural New Brunswickers understand that our fiscal ship has been listing badly for some time, and that changes to high-cost services may well be inevitable to ensure continued access to quality health care. We know finding effective long-term solutions is a challenge. Yet we now face what has been presented as a done deal, out of public view, with less than a month to prepare for and implement what clearly will be a major shift in service provision. Were no alternatives considered?

There is now so little time to put the required supports in place that patient care and public certainty are both likely to be the victims of a poorly-communicated, top-down, unconvincingly presented fait accompli, developed and announced without consultation and seemingly without consideration of alternatives or likely or unintended consequences. Ms. McGrath, Minister Flemming, and Premier Higgs, can expect much more blowback from skeptical voters.

Kathy Hamer (Edwards) came to New Brunswick in 1971 and worked as a Professor of French at Mount Allison University. She held various administrative posts at Mt. A before spending five years as Vice-President at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. With the exception of those five years, she has called Sackville home. She and her husband Peter Edwards are now retired here. She is a member of the boards of the NB Youth Orchestra, Symphony NB, the NB Museum, and Sackville’s Festival of Early Music, and is a past president of ArtsLink NB.

Posted in Commentary, Health care, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick politics, Town of Sackville | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Horizon CEO says she understands outcry over hospital cuts, but the changes are needed

Karen McGrath, president and CEO Horizon Health Network in the atrium at Sackville Memorial Hospital on Thursday

The President and CEO of the Horizon Health Network says she recognizes that people in small communities and rural areas are upset over the health-care changes announced this week including the closure of overnight emergency rooms starting on March 11.

During separate meetings with reporters and invited guests at the Sackville Memorial Hospital on Thursday, Karen McGrath suggested she had been prepared for a public outcry.

“We did know that people would react as they have in terms of being quite concerned and fearful about the changes,” she told the deputy mayor of Dorchester during a meeting with community leaders, echoing comments she had made earlier at a news conference.

“The response to these decisions is very emotional for communities and I absolutely understand that,” she told reporters. “I think we respectfully have to understand that I’m looking at it from one perspective and a citizen in a community is looking at it from another perspective,” she said.

“My mandate is to ensure that we have a sustainable health care system in future,” she added.

Staff shortages

In both meetings, McGrath said she was asked by the provincial minister of health last September to come up with a strategic plan that would enable the provision of medical services in spite of staff shortages.

“We’ve had 23 closures in the past year in the health system in New Brunswick — closures of services that we didn’t have enough staff to run, either physicians or nurses,” she said.

“So, we have to start being strategic in terms of determining where services need to be located and what is the level of service we can provide in our communities.”

In both meetings, McGrath suggested that measures at smaller hospitals such as closing emergency rooms overnight, moving day surgeries to larger centres and re-allocating beds to long-term care would make the health system more efficient while strengthening frontline or primary care.

She said, for example, that doctors, who no longer have to staff emergency rooms overnight, will be able to see more patients during the day while the planned addition of a nurse practitioner and mental health clinician will improve primary care in communities like Sackville.

While McGrath acknowledged that centralizing some hospital services will require more travel, she said that 95% of New Brunswick’s population will still be within 75 kilometres of a hospital, a key objective of the new plan.

More changes coming

McGrath said the changes announced this week are the first phase in a series of health reforms that will include a review of  laboratory operations and how hospital food is provided.

“We’re going to start to look at every program and service within Horizon and Vitalité and determine where hospital services need to be located,” she added. “So, for example, a surgery program, do we need X number of surgery programs throughout New Brunswick, what’s our population, what’s the data telling us?”

When Sackville Mayor John Higham asked why there had been no consultation before the first series of changes were announced, McGrath replied that these were operational decisions.

“This was not a consultative phase,” she added.

And when Jean-Paul Boudreau, president of Mount Allison University asked whether there was still room for discussion about the changes, McGrath was equally clear.

“This decision is made,” she said.

Another protest rally

Meantime, the mayors of the six towns affected by changes to their hospitals have agreed to work together to oppose cuts in services.

Another rally will be held at the Sackville Memorial Hospital as well as in the  five other affected communities at 2 p.m. on Monday, February 17, the Family Day holiday.

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‘I will fight with you,’ Mitton promises protesters during rally at Sackville hospital

Hundreds of demonstrators marched Thursday to the Sackville Memorial Hospital to protest against cuts in services announced this week by the Horizon Health Network and the increasingly shaky minority government led by Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs.

The demonstrators waved placards and chanted “Hey McGrath, hear our call, 16 hours is way too small,” a reference to the overnight, eight hour closure of the Sackville emergency room, one of the cuts defended by Horizon President and CEO Karen McGrath who was inside the building for a series of meetings.

“Hey, ho, hospital cuts have got to go,” demonstrators chanted as they also protested against the closure of the hospital’s 21 short-term, acute-care beds. They will be converted into beds for patients awaiting longer-term care in nursing homes. If the cuts go ahead, the Sackville hospital’s operating room will also be closed in about six months and the day surgeries now performed there will be moved to Moncton.

MLA Megan Mitton

“I’m so proud and glad to see so many people here showing how much we care about our hospital,” said Green MLA Megan Mitton as she addressed the crowd through a bright red bull horn.

“I will fight with you,” Mitton said as the demonstrators cheered, whistled and rang bells. “I will fight with you every step of the way,” she added, pledging to defend the threatened services.

“Sackville doctors who practise here are not going to be able to admit their patients to this hospital,” she said. “We cannot accept this and we’re going to fight this,” she added as she urged people to sign a paper copy of an online petition that has gathered nearly 10,000 signatures.

Mitton promised to present the petition to the legislature when it reconvenes next month, but explained she needs a paper copy because under the rules, online petitions cannot be tabled in the House.

“We’re going to keep organizing and we’re going to work as a community,” Mitton promised.

‘We have been deceived’

Elaine Smith, chair of the Sackville Memorial Hospital Foundation told the demonstrators that donors have given more than $1.2 million over the last 10 years to buy equipment for every department in the hospital — all with the blessing of the Horizon Health Network.

“We have been told by CEO Karen McGrath that our day surgery department is an important component of the Horizon network. Over 3,200 surgeries have taken place in Sackville since 2016,” Smith said.

“We have been told that this takes the pressure off the Moncton hospital and allows surgeries to be done more quickly, making it a win-win for all,” she added.

“The bottom line is that we feel that we have been deceived,” Smith said. “We feel that these decisions have been in the works for awhile,” she added. “There has been absolutely no consultation.”

Smith told the crowd she fears that the hospital cuts will have repercussions.

“Doctors are not going to have beds to admit their patients to. Do our doctors want to stay here?” she asked. “Probably not.”

Smith also wondered whether elderly people will want to stay in Sackville and whether parents would want to send their students to Mount Allison University.

“This is something that we have to fight and fight together to the bitter end,” she concluded as demonstrators cheered and applauded.

Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken

‘Nonsense’ hospital cuts

Sackville’s Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken sounded angry as he waved a copy of Thursday’s Moncton Times & Transcript which published an editorial calling the hospital cuts reasonable.

“In that article they say, ‘time to calm down and look at the realities,'” Aiken said as the demonstrators booed.

“Well, the realities are that our emergency room takes an overflow from Moncton. Doctors are telling me that three-quarters of the patients on any shift are from outside of Sackville,” he added.

“So, what they want to do is take the overflow and shove it back,” the deputy mayor said.

“They want to change acute-care beds to chronic-care beds. That’s a good idea,” Aiken added. “Open the empty wing and turn that into chronic-care,” he shouted to sustained cheering.

Aiken also pointed out that since the Sackville emergency room won’t accept patients after 10 p.m., the overnight closure would actually last 10 hours, not just eight.

He reported that he and Mayor Higham have been on the phone “going crazy for a couple of days” organizing a protest against the cuts.

“There’s more plans in the works to involve the other communities that are affected by this and get them involved and tell the province from one end to the other how we feel about this nonsense,” Aiken said.

Liberal leader Kevin Vickers accepts printed copy of online petition from Kellie Mattatal outside Sackville Town Hall after the protest rally at the hospital

‘Election issue’

New Brunswick’s Liberal leader Kevin Vickers, who attended Thursday’s rally, repeated his promise to try to bring down the Higgs government after the legislature reconvenes in March.

Vickers says he will introduce a motion of no-confidence over the hospital cuts in Sackville and five other smaller communities.

“This is a health and safety issue,” he told Warktimes, “and it’s totally unacceptable in our province that rural New Brunswickers or people living in smaller communities would have a less standard of care than people in our large centres.”

When I observed that this would be “one hell of an issue to fight an election on,” Vickers replied:

“Well, I think this is going to be the election issue undoubtedly because we also believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Mr. Higgs has been hiding behind bureaucrats on this issue. He has not come out and told us exactly what his entire plan is and we know that this is just the beginning, so we’re calling him out on it and we’re not going to tolerate having New Brunswickers’ health and safety in danger.”

This is the first of three articles related to planned cuts at Sackville Memorial Hospital. Next, what Karen McGrath, Horizon President and CEO told reporters at a news conference and later, about 30 invited guests during a meeting at the hospital on Thursday.

Posted in Mount Allison University, New Brunswick government, New Brunswick politics, Town of Sackville | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Sackville hospital cuts an attack on rural people, says local doctor

Sackville Memorial Hospital

A family doctor in Sackville says he’s both sad and angry after today’s announcements about extensive cutbacks in patient services at the Sackville Memorial Hospital.

Allison Dysart was referring to the elimination of day surgeries and overnight emergency services along with the conversion of all of the Sackville hospital’s acute-care beds into beds for patients waiting for long-term care in nursing homes or similar facilities.

Dysart says he’s angry about the lack of consultation with local people before the Horizon Health Network and the provincial government announced sweeping changes that will mean anyone who needs these hospital services will now have to travel to Moncton to get them.

“I’m also angry because this is part of a philosophy or a set of ideas that rural people aren’t really entitled to the same access to care as non-rural people,” he says. “Rural people have to travel farther for care and they have to just accept it even though they pay the same taxes as anybody else.”

Dysart says the health care system should be reaching out to older, poorer people in rural areas who have higher medical needs, but little or no access to public transit.

“All these politicians, they pay lip service to the idea of working to help vulnerable people, but when we’re talking about rural people, it’s like, ‘Aw tough, I guess they just have to travel and if they’ve lost these services at their hospital, well, that’s the way to go.'”

Green Party ‘appalled’

Green party leader David Coon (centre) with Kevin Arseneau and Megan Mitton

A news release issued by Green Party leader David Coon points out that two of the six hospitals affected by today’s announcements are in ridings held by Green MLAs Megan Mitton and Kevin Arseneau.

In the release, Coon criticizes the Higgs’ government for its lack of consultation about the changes.

“Consultation and transparency have to be the backbone of any government,” Coon is quoted as saying.

“Instead these changes were decided without any meaningful input from the hospitals themselves, doctors, nurses, unions, front-line workers, municipalities and the communities…When it comes to your local hospital, you should be able to count on it in an emergency, day or night.”

MLA Mitton, who represents the riding of Memramcook-Tantramar, also complains in the release about the lack of consultation.

“Decisions about our healthcare and our hospital should be made with input from our communities; there seems to have been no consideration of seniors, students and those with limited access to transportation,” she says.

Sackville councillors weigh in

Councillor Allison Butcher

During the question period at Monday night’s Sackville Town Council meeting, several councillors promised to join the fight against any cuts.

“I know a little child in this area who, because of his complex medical needs, needs to be within 10 minutes of a hospital,” said Councillor Allison Butcher, “and if our hospital does not have emergency services 24 hours a day, his family can no longer live in our community.

“There are all kinds of people who have chosen Sackville or who continue to be in Sackville because of our hospital and we can’t just sit and let some other people choose these things for us, so we need to lobby, we need to fight, we need to make sure that we are standing strong to make sure that our hospital stays in its full capacity,” Butcher added.

Councillors Michael Tower, Shawn Mesheau, Bill Evans, Bruce Phinney and Joyce O’Neil also spoke against the hospital cutbacks with several saying they felt blindsided by the lack of local consultation.

Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken said he suspects the provincial government is intent on eventually closing the Sackville hospital altogether.

“I think the ‘death by a thousand cuts approach’ that they always take, it’s just dead wrong and they have to be called on it because they’ll get to the point where they cut enough to say ‘well, it’s just not worth having it at all,'” Aiken said.

Meantime, an online petition against the closure of overnight emergency services in Sackville was nearing its goal of 7,500 signatures early Tuesday evening.

For more details on the hospital cuts from the Horizon Health Network, click here.

Posted in New Brunswick government, Town of Sackville | Tagged , | 4 Comments