Provincial officials at the Department of Health say they're "working toward" fixing the Ambulance New Brunswick contract that now includes a bonus payment system favouring urban over rural areas.
But they offered no details during an appearance before a committee of MLAs on what that work involves or how soon changes could be made.
"We recognize that the response times across the province are not equal. We are the first ones to recognize that," said Gérald Richard, the deputy minister at the department.
"We have been directed as the Department of Health officials to make sure that we find solutions to those inequalities in the system and we are working toward that at this moment."
He and René Boudreau, an assistant deputy minister who chairs the provincial corporation overseeing the service, faced tough questions from several MLAs on the Public Accounts committee.
"Why is the department comfortable with dividing the province basically into these categories where the rural areas are disadvantaged and have unacceptable wait times?" asked Green MLA Megan Mitton.
"I have to say we are not comfortable with this at all," Richard responded, "and government is not as well and has directed us to look at improving the contract."
Progressive Conservative MLA Jake Stewart, pushed Richard repeatedly on the structure of the contract, noting his hometown of Blackville is among the communities with response times below the provincial target.
"Twenty-six, 27, 28 minutes is a long time for a tragic car crash or a drowning," Stewart said.
Medavie Health Services New Brunswick Inc., a non-profit private company, runs the ambulance service under a contract with EM/ANB Inc., which is made up of a board of provincial government officials.
Boudreau said Wednesday there's "a willingness on both ends" to try to change the agreement, which expires in 2027.
Medavie gets extra payments if it hits its response-time goals 90 per cent of the time. The goals are nine minutes in urban areas and 22 minutes in rural areas. The payments were $2.7 million in 2018-19.
But because rural areas are folded into four large zones where urban calls make up the majority of ambulance calls, the Medavie service can hit the 90 percent goal in each zone and receive bonus payments--despite falling short of 90 percent in rural communities.
Ambulance service focused on urban areas, AG says
Last year Auditor-General Kim Adair-MacPherson found that 19 of 67 remote, rural communities saw response times below the 90 per cent threshold.
The lowest was Belledune, with 69 per cent. Another example was Port Elgin with 79 per cent. Blackville was at 88 per cent.
Ambulance New Brunswick "is given the opportunity to focus resources on urban areas while having decreased performance in outlying communities and without impacting its performance-based payments," Adair-MacPherson said in her report last fall.
Boudreau said communities where ANB frequently misses the 22-minute goal "definitely need attention" and the goal is "equity across the province."
Once the government gives the EM/ANB board clear direction, "there is absolutely a willingness on both ends to look at what those implications would mean for the contract and make changes where appropriate and where the parties can find agreement."
"It's refreshing that the current contract will be revamped to provide acceptable response times and coverage to rural areas," Stewart said after the meeting wrapped up.