Premier Blaine Higgs is endorsing a call by the president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union that two hospitals in Moncton look at merging services to address a severe shortage of nurses at both facilities.
Higgs said Thursday after a meeting with Paula Doucet he's "excited by the ideas she's bringing forward," even while acknowledging that it's a politically sensitive issue.
"We need to look at better ways for our two networks to complement each other," Higgs said during question period. "Not duplicate each other, not argue about who gets where when, but provide complementary services and a balanced approach to our health-care system."
The two hospitals in Moncton are located in the same part of the city but are run by the province's two different regional health authorities, Horizon and Vitalité.
We're trying to run these two separate hospitals with skeleton crews in both [hospitals]. - Paula Doucet, nurses' union
Francophones have long guarded the role of the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre as vital to their community.
Vitalité CEO France Desrosiers provoked a political storm among francophones this week when she suggested language wouldn't matter in filling nursing vacancies, and she'd hire unilingual anglophones if needed.
That came after Vitalité was forced to divert ambulances from the Dumont to the Moncton Hospital and after some doctors stepped in to cover the nursing shortage.
Cardiologist Dr. Luc Cormier said some staff were comparing the hospital to "a war zone."
Doucet met with Higgs on Wednesday about the nursing shortage at the two hospitals and pressed the case for amalgamating some services such as obstetrics, palliative care and mental health.
"We're trying to run these two separate hospitals with skeleton crews in both," Doucet said Thursday. "Why wouldn't the RHAs have a conversation to say, 'Which services can we put together for a period of time?'"
Higgs said Thursday any talk of merging services doesn't jeopardize the distinct roles of the two health authorities.
"I think it's high time for those frank discussions," he said. "It doesn't mean a threat to either health authority. It just means we're going to find, as we've done through COVID, a better way to work together."
Doucet said there are 700 nursing vacancies in the province now.
Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said Higgs's suggestion would take too much time to sort out.
"There needs to be action now … to stop the bleeding. The premier wants to talk about long-term stuff. The problem is right now."
But Doucet said the province needs to "make some big decisions" quickly so that nurses can get some time off or even avoid being scheduled for 24-hour shifts, which is happening now.
She said she told Higgs: "Please help me get the nurses through the summer, because right now they are sinking."
"I said, 'Right now you need to look at amalgamating services because right now there are units running with half the staff in both facilities. Wouldn't it make sense to run one service with a full complement of staff, and then you can do it well?'"
Doucet said she's also aware of the political sensitivities around the two health networks.
But "we're in a pandemic right now," she said. The province has "a little bit of power right now to do the right thing."
Acadian Society president Alexandre Cédric Doucet said there are other steps that can be taken to increase the number of nurses, and said any merger of services would be unacceptable.
The Dumont hospital is "a key institution" for francophones, he said. "It has to maintain its distinct character."
Melanson said he is "not against having co-ordinated efforts."
"What I'm saying is the problem is bigger than that." He said better wages would help.
The nurses' union is at the bargaining table now, trying to negotiate three new collective agreements.
Doucet said those talks are not going well, and she plans to meet again with Higgs soon to talk about that.