Gagetown Mayor Derek Pleadwell is worried about what an extra 20-minute drive might mean for someone experiencing a medical emergency in his community.
As of Tuesday, residents of the village about 60 kilometres east of Fredericton became more dependant on the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital for emergency care after Horizon Health reduced the Oromocto Public Hospital's ER schedule by six hours daily.
For comparison, the village of Gagetown is about a 30-minute drive from the Oromocto Public Hospital and about a 48-minute drive from the Chalmers hospital in Fredericton.
"Tacking on an additional 20 minutes to what can often be a life-threatening situation is scary for individuals and something that we're certainly not happy with," Pleadwell said.
He said he understands the circumstances that led to the reduction but wants the province to be "extremely aggressive" in fixing the staffing problem.
On Monday, Horizon Health Network announced the Oromocto Public Hospital's ER would be closing at 4 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. until it addressed staffing shortages. The ER's opening time of 8 a.m. remains unchanged.
Oromocto Mayor Bob Powell said the move means that residents in his town will have to travel about 20 minutes to get emergency care if they were to need it during the hours when the Oromocto Public Hospital's ER is closed.
However, he said more of his concern rests with residents in communities farther out, such as Geary, Gagetown and Fredericton Junction, who often turn to the Oromocto Public Hospital for emergency care.
"You take someone that lives all the way down in Gagetown, or if someone lives in Fredericton Junction, I mean, that's quite a drive if it's a serious emergency."
Powell said he received a phone call from Nicole Tupper, Horizon's executive director, on Monday afternoon to inform him of the ER hours reduction.
He said she told him the reduction had to be done because there weren't physicians able to fill in when others took time off.
"And with COVID, they were strung out and so busy and worn to a thread," Powell said. "Plus, with the holidays coming, I mean, they have to have the holidays, too, so they had no other option than to cut the hours."
Shortage in Fredericton too
In an email, Edouard Hendriks, vice-president of medical, academic and research affairs with Horizon, said there's a shortage of "resources" both at the Oromocto hospital and at the Chalmers hospital, allowing Oromocto to only have one physician on site during the day.
That shortage prompted the reduction of Oromocto's ER hours to ensure safe and quality care to patients, he said.
"This change will allow the (Chalmers hospital) to maintain its current services and ensure safe and quality care for patients with emergency medical needs, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Hendriks said.
"This change will remain in place until we are able to recruit an adequate number of health care professionals to work in this department."
'A long-awaited chance at taking rest'
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard wasn't available for an interview.
In an email statement, she said health-care staff need time off for vacation, but she didn't directly say whether that was the cause of the staffing shortage at the Oromocto Public Hospital.
"As summer is upon us and travel and Public Health restrictions are being lifted, for many in the health-care sector, this is providing a long-awaited chance at taking rest," she said.
"We must all respect the fact that there are people who need some time off and we need to work through these challenges."
The Oromocto hospital's ER reduction comes after Horizon announced earlier this month that the Sackville Memorial Hospital ER would have to reduce its operating hours for the foreseeable future because of staff shortages.
It also comes after Shephard earlier this year said her department would be taking a lead on hiring physicians to work in New Brunswick to trim the list of people waiting for a family doctor.
In her statement, Shephard said doctor recruitment needs to be centrally co-ordinated and then carried out in partnership with the regional health authorities, relevant associations, clinicians and communities.
"But it's not just the job of government or the regional health authorities to recruit. I believe that municipalities and communities have a big role to play in making their areas attractive to prospective providers."