Former People's Alliance leader Kris Austin is urging his new Progressive Conservative caucus colleagues to look at merging New Brunswick's two regional health authorities.
Austin, who joined the PC government caucus in March, says in an email obtained by CBC News that he'd like them to discuss the merger idea during a "priority-setting exercise" at a party caucus retreat next week in Miramichi.
The Fredericton-Grand Lake MLA wrote his email in response to a request for discussion topics. He said he'd like to talk about "bringing together both Horizon and Vitalité into one provincial authority."
"This could help streamline services/resources and reduce competition between current health authorities," he wrote.
Austin is broaching a hot-button language issue just as the Higgs government is campaigning to win two byelections in ridings with sizeable francophone populations.
Premier Blaine Higgs and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard immediately shot down the idea.
"We're not merging Vitalité or Horizon or Ambulance New Brunswick," Higgs said, adding that few of his MLAs backed the idea.
"I don't feel that merger has a lot of support at all. I do think there's a lot of support for ensuring that we build a better health system together."
Shephard agreed. "In my mind, there's no merger conversation."
In his email, Austin says the merger would have to be done "while maintaining the requirements of the [Official Languages Act] and the linguistic makeup of the regions where each hospital/clinic is located."
As Alliance leader, Austin complained there was unnecessary duplication between Horizon, which operates primarily in English, and Vitalité, which is administered mainly in French.
Each authority is obligated to provide service to the public in both official languages.
Austin told reporters Wednesday that the understanding when he defected to the PCs was that he could raise issues but would have to live with the party position.
"Obviously, I'm not the minister of health and I respect whatever the minister of health decides at the end of the day, but these are the types of conversations that need to be had in this province," he said.
'Not a language issue'
As long as the system respects the requirements for bilingual service, Austin said, he believes a single entity would reduce competition for staff and resources.
"To me this is not a language issue. This is an issue of good health care."
Austin, who founded the Alliance and led it until March, has always insisted he doesn't oppose official bilingualism but objects to some ways it's implemented, including the existence of the two health authorities.
But that position is anathema to francophones who see the regional health authorities as constitutionally protected and fundamental to their minority-language rights.
Higgs has also complained in the past about the two health authorities, but as premier he has ruled out a merger, calling instead for the two entities to co-ordinate more services.
On Wednesday, he said the designation of the testing lab at Vitalité's Dr. Georges-L. Dumont Hospital in Moncton as the official provincial testing lab is an example of the co-ordination he wants to see.
Another example, he said, would be simplifying the ability of a patient in one health authority to go to the other authority's hospital if it were less busy.
"The issue we're talking about is co-ordinated health care. It's not about a merger. There won't be any discussion about a merger, because that's not on the table."
Austin said co-ordination was good, but "there's always more room for that."
The opposition Liberals and Greens both condemned the merger idea.
"They can discuss all they want. I will not try to influence their caucus conversations," said Liberal Leader Roger Melanson. "But I can tell you one thing: we would certainly intervene and speak loudly if anything is done that affects [the system] negatively."
Green MLA Megan Mitton said that aside from the risk to language equality, "the last thing we need is more centralization in health care. Decision making is getting further and further away from our communities, and we need to stop that."
The Alliance founder and fellow MLA Michelle Conroy quit the party March 30 and joined the PC caucus.
Austin said at the time that joining the PC government caucus was not about "watering down anybody's voice."
"I think the opposite. I think this is about strengthening that voice and being at the table, as opposed to being on the outside trying to make changes."
Higgs pointed out there have been several examples of internal disagreements in his caucus coming to light, and he didn't regret that bringing two Alliance MLAs on board had sparked more of that.
"I would rather have … the open discussion, rather than a whole lot of separate discussions, so we map out a path forward for us collectively. And then it's resolved and we move on."
Austin wrote the email on Tuesday in response to Higgs's chief of staff, Louis Léger.
Léger wrote to all PC MLAs and many political staffers and senior civil servants to lay out the agenda for a two-day party caucus retreat in Miramichi next Wednesday and Thursday.
He asked all MLAs to list "two things that you are interested in 'fixing' before our mandate ends."
Austin's second suggested topic was a continuation of tax and fee reductions.
A reporter pointed out Wednesday that Austin was wearing a purple tie, the colour of his former party.
"I've got a lot of purple ties in my closet, as you can imagine," he explained. "So I'm still going through getting some new ties in different colours. But good point."