It was another day of confused messaging at the New Brunswick legislature over what Premier Blaine Higgs has in mind for the province's two regional health authorities.
Higgs told reporters there will "always" be English and French hospital networks in the province, while Health Minister Dorothy Shephard refused to be as categorical.
And Higgs would not rule out some kind of new health entity that oversees the two health authorities and ensure they co-operate and complement each other.
"He is not clear at all, and he keeps saying things differently," said Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson.
"The question is simple: is there going to be two health authorities with two boards of directors and two CEOs? … It's just a yes or no question. Answer."
During question period, Melanson repeatedly pressed Higgs to clarify his intentions amid talks between the Horizon and Vitalité health authorities on how to work together to reduce the impact of severe shortages of nurses this summer.
Mixed messaging on merger
The president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union has called for the merging of some services between the two hospitals, so that overworked nurses can avoid 24-hour shifts and get some vacation in the coming months.
Shephard said the two health authorities "did wonderful work" on May 8 and 9, when they worked together to keep both their emergency departments open as Vitalité was on the verge of closing the one at the Dr. Georges-L. Dumont University Hospital.
The talk of co-operation and shared services has prompted concern among francophones that the province wants the two authorities to merge some functions permanently or even combine the two health authorities.
"We know there's always going to be a French hospital network and there's always going to be an English hospital network," Higgs told reporters Friday, apparently nixing the idea of a merger.
"I think there's some people thinking that could happen. I don't see that happening. That's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about complementary services."
But when he was asked if the two networks could be run by a single health authority, Higgs would not rule out some kind of new structure to ensure the co-operation he's looking for.
"Each hospital network will have its own management capability, the French system and the English system," he said.
"My concern has been how do we standardize our health-care delivery system so we can deliver the best services we can throughout the network? … So I don't know what that looks like, how we have those ongoing opportunities evaluated."
'For now we have Horizon and Vitalité'
Adding to the ambiguity was Shephard's careful use of the present tense in her own question period answers.
She said "There is no amalgamation" and "We have two health authorities, Horizon and Vitalité," without saying whether that would be the case in the future.
When reporters asked if there would always be two health authorities, Shephard refused to guarantee it, saying she has "no intention of amalgamating" them.
"We didn't know when we had eight authorities that we could go to two" in 2008, she added.
"We don't know what the future's going to bring in how we establish and answer challenges in our health-care system. … For now we have Horizon and Vitalité. I have no intentions of changing that."
Shephard accused the Liberals of using divisive tactics by suggesting the province's largest francophone hospital and its French-speaking health authority are in jeopardy.
They have taken what is "very obviously [a] contingency plan that was necessary [on May 8-9] and pulled it into this conversation," she said.
While the Liberals called for clarity from the premier and introduced a 3,200-name petition opposed to any merger of services at the hospitals in Moncton, People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he was happy to hear talk of the two health authorities working together.
Austin has called for the abolition of the two health authorities while insisting he supports hospitals operating in French in francophone regions.
"What I'm seeing now for the first time is an actual light moving in that direction," he said.
"Now we're starting to see at least some elements of that when we're talking about services coming together."