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.
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.