New provincial health plan promises to keep local hospital services, but critics are skeptical

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard

New Brunswick’s health minister announced a two-year plan today that includes measures to improve access to family doctors and mental health services, reduce wait times for hip and knee surgeries and help elderly people remain in their own homes.

“I’m really optimistic about the changes that we’ll see and New Brunswickers will see over the next 24-months that are really going to have an impact,” said Dorothy Shephard during an online news conference.

She said there will be no reduction in services at six rural hospitals such as the elimination of acute care beds, cancellation of day surgeries and the overnight closure of  emergency rooms that the Higgs government announced in February 2020.

“We’re going to be working with communities, one on one,” Shephard said. “Nothing’s going to be done to communities, it’s going to be done with them,” she added.

“Every single hospital has a role to play in this network, we can create a network of excellence and by doing it together, we’re hopefully going to avoid those hurdles where communities think they’re losing things.”

After a storm of protest in 2020, the Higgs government withdrew the cuts to services that would have affected hospitals in Sackville, Sussex, Sainte-Anne-de Kent, Caraquet, Grand Falls and Perth Andover.

Staff shortages

The new two-year plan says little about the chronic shortages of medical staff that have been blamed for sharp reductions in emergency room services at rural hospitals.

In Sackville, for example, the emergency room has been closed overnight on weekends since last June and starting on Friday, the local ER will be open only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. Anyone who needs overnight emergency care in Sackville will be forced to go to another hospital. The Horizon Health Network says these closures are temporary, but will remain in effect indefinitely.

When asked about this reduction in ER services, Shephard pointed to her new plan to give New Brunswicker’s greater access to primary caregivers:

Citizens without a family doctor or nurse practitioner who need access to primary care services will be able to register to a new Primary Care Network and receive services. This provincial clinic will become their temporary home for primary care until they are matched with a permanent provider. It will offer both in-person and virtual appointments as well as a single electronic medical record for everyone.

Shephard said this Primary Care Network is designed to alleviate the pressure on emergency rooms, but her new plan gives few details about recruiting and retaining the medical staff needed to keep the ERs open.

In a news release, Shephard is quoted as saying that communities and health-care providers will become official recruitment partners for a variety of roles, from physicians and nurses to psychologists and mental health counsellors.

“Community recruitment teams will be supported with a new grant program to help develop promotional materials, in particular for rural communities,” the release says.

Rural concerns

MLA Megan Mitton during online news conference

Megan Mitton, the MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar says people in her riding are understandably concerned about the indefinite reductions in ER services.

“I’m not seeing the bold action that we need to address the nursing shortage, for example.”

Mitton says that although the new health plan says rural hospital services won’t be cut, they are already being cut.

“By underfunding training, by not hiring staff full-time when people apply, by not offering competitive wages and even by threatening our hospital, all of these things contribute to the situation that we have today,” she says.

“What I really would like to see is an action plan for how they’re going to re-open the hospital and I don’t see that.”

Mitton adds that there needs to be “a ramping up of recruitment efforts and training efforts to make sure that there’s sustainability in the long term.”

She also points to vague wording in the government’s promises to consult local people and adds she would like to see formal consultation with local working groups and opportunities for more local decision making.

Serious doubts

The chair of the Sackville Memorial Hospital Foundation says she is skeptical about the new provincial health plan.

Pat Estabrooks, who also co-chairs a task force and rural action group fighting to preserve hospital services, says recruiting more medical staff should have been a number one priority.

“How long will this plan take?” she asks. “We’re in a crisis now.”

Estabrooks, who emphasizes she is speaking for herself, says a succession of provincial governments have centralized health-care planning and local people should have more direct control over the decisions that affect them.

“The new plan is marvellous, wonderful, but I don’t believe it,” she says.

“It’s difficult to be a believer because they (provincial governments) haven’t done anything they said they would do.”

To read the new provincial health plan, click here.

To read a news release from the Green Party caucus, click here.

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