The new Progressive Conservative government has unveiled what it says is the first step in fixing the province's ambulance system.
Premier Blaine Higgs, accompanied by political allies old and new, said Ambulance New Brunswick will create a dedicated service for non-emergency transfers of hospital patients — a move that should take pressure off ambulances responding to urgent calls.
Transfers make up 30 percent of calls and until now have been subject to the same bilingualism requirements as emergency calls.
The Paramedics Association of New Brunswick says those transfers tie up ambulances that would otherwise be available for emergencies, in some cases leading to response delays. In the Restigouche area, transfers represent two-thirds of all ambulance calls.
Hiring more unilingual paramedics
By splitting them off, the transfers — booked in advance with the patient's language choice known ahead of time — won't require designated bilingual paramedics.
Forty unilingual paramedics who are now casual employees will be hired as permanent employees for the transfer service.
Higgs told reporters that Medavie, the not-for-profit company that operates Ambulance New Brunswick, has told him that should free up enough bilingual paramedics for the organization to meet language requirements on emergency calls.
At ANB we are committed, and at Medavie we are committed through ANB, to providing services in both official languages. - Bernard Lord, Medavie
"That's what we understand from Medavie, that it will," Higgs said. "We can maintain the other systems as they are, with the requirement for bilingual paramedics, and that's great."
Medavie CEO Bernard Lord, himself a former PC premier, said the dedicated transfer system will make the problem "a lot less great. There'll be less pressure."
Lord noted that Ambulance New Brunswick has always met the terms of its contract with the province: responding to 90 per cent of urban calls within nine minutes, and 90 percent of rural calls within 22 minutes.
But some of the response times that fall outside those ranges have included lengthy delays that have alarmed residents of small, remote communities.
Greg McConachy, president of Local 4848 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, applauded the announcement.
"I commend the government of the day for a road back, a start back on a system that's failing us," he said.
But he also said that wage increases are needed to recruit more paramedics to fill more vacancies.
A discussion paper released last month by the previous Liberal government, which the PCs say they will review as they continue to work on the system, concluded there was "no direct relationship" between out-of-service ambulances and bilingual staffing requirements.
"Though language capacity is always considered first when seeking to find a paramedic to fill a shift as it is an obligation, an ambulance is never left unstaffed for that reason," it said. "A unilingual resource, if available, will staff the ambulance."
Monday's news conference was a reflection of the shifting politics in New Brunswick.
Normally, government announcements are nominally non-partisan, with political party affiliations going unmentioned.
But Higgs allowed People's Alliance leader Kris Austin to speak, acknowledging that Austin has been making bilingual paramedic requirements an issue for years. Higgs is relying on the Alliance's three MLAs to keep his minority government in power.
"We must not let unnecessary language requirements supercede common sense," Austin said to a crowd of paramedics and officials, including his two fellow Alliance MLAs.
At the same time, Lord, a former PC premier who won strong support from francophone voters, is now the CEO of Medavie working with Higgs to resolve the controversy.
Lord, whose government made some of the updates to the Official Languages Act that Austin has criticized, was the only non-elected official who spoke and was the one who talked most emphatically about bilingual service.
"This is an important commitment for us," Lord told reporters. "At ANB we are committed, and at Medavie we are committed through ANB, to providing services in both official languages."
Won't pursue judicial review
Higgs said Monday the government still has "the intention of" withdrawing a judicial review of a 2018 labour arbitrator's ruling that delved into the language issue.
The ruling discussed options including lowering the bilingualism staffing requirement in regions of the province where there is less demand for second-language service, or using a "language line" device connected to a central interpretation service.
The previous Liberal government asked for the judicial review of the decision because it appeared to contradict a binding consent order by a judge.
In that order, the province and Ambulance New Brunswick agreed to provide ambulance service "of equal quality" in both languages in all areas of the province.
Higgs said the province wants to end the judicial review so it can implement the labour ruling, in case it turns out that the transfer system still doesn't free up enough paramedics to meet bilingual requirements.
"There is a possibility," Higgs said. "We keep that option open, not losing sight of health care being the number one goal."
Lord said he didn't want to discuss the legal cases in detail, but he said the labour ruling's discussion of a "language line" and weaker regional bilingualism requirements were "recommendations and observations," not part of the actual order.
"The order doesn't touch any of those things," he said.
The only order by the arbitrator was that Ambulance New Brunswick review language requirements for vacant positions and repost the ones where bilingualism is required, using seniority for hiring decisions.
Retired Moncton law professor Michel Doucet, who represented the two Moncton-area patients whose complaint led to the consent order, said he would ask the province and Ambulance New Brunswick to explain how the announcement complies with the order.
Slow response by paramedics
In October, former health minister Benoît Bourque said a discussion paper on ambulance service revealed a drastic shortage of trained bilingual paramedics and a lack of language training to fill the need where bilingual service is required.
The document said 51 out of 61 vacant full-time paramedic positions are bilingual jobs, as are 31 of 40 part-time vacancies.
Today's announcement comes more than three weeks after a 13-year-old boy died in an ATV crash in Haut-Lamèque after family, police and firefighters waited about 45 minutes for paramedics to arrive at the scene.
Medavie recently announced a second ambulance for Saint-Quentin, which fought for two years to get better coverage.
That announcement came after a cyclist was struck and injured by a vehicle and waited more than 40 minutes before being taken to hospital three blocks away by a passerby.