No elected members on new regional health authority boards, province says
New Brunswick Health Minister Bruce Fitch introduced a bill in the legislature Tuesday to change the composition of the boards of directors for both regional health authorities to allow for up to seven members — all appointed for a three-year term, with no elected representatives.
"These amendments will align New Brunswick with most other Canadian jurisdictions," Fitch said.
Last summer, Premier Blaine Higgs replaced the 15 voting members of the Horizon and Vitalité boards with a single trustee for each, after a man died in a Fredericton emergency room while waiting for care. He also fired the Horizon CEO and replaced the minister of health at the time.
The boards previously had seven appointed members and eight elected.
Liberal Susan Holt, the leader of the official opposition, told reporters the move to all-appointed boards is "deeply concerning."
"What we really need to see is not a centralization of decision-making power, but a decentralization back to true community voices," she said.
"This continues to undermine what is already a very weak democracy."
Green Party Leader David Coon said democratic governance "that was there in the health-care system, that involves the participation of local communities and decision-making through representatives, is gone."
However, Fitch said the change will help speed up some decisions that need to be made because there will be fewer people needed to sign off on them.
The two trustees have done a great job, he said, but it's better to have a "broader section" on the boards, "so that they can help make the correct decisions moving forward."
Legal action still ongoing
A francophone health-care lobby group, Égalité Santé en Français, filed for a judicial review of the Vitalité board's replacement last summer.
The group's lawyer, Ronald Caza, said at the time the replacement of the board violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the rights of New Brunswick's English and French communities to their own "distinct educational and cultural institutions."
This wasn't the first legal action taken by the group on this issue.
Caza said a lawsuit filed in 2017 against the provincial government is still ongoing. He said it was launched because having eight elected and seven appointed board members meant the francophone population didn't have full management of its health services.
"So this amendment to the law which is being proposed ... they're actually making the situation a lot worse," said Caza.
The government said in its news release the change would align New Brunswick with other provinces, but Caza said this is not the case.
"They cannot compare themselves to the situation in other provinces because what they've done effectively ... is they've actually taken a right away," he said.
"No other province has that type of protection given so clearly to its minorities, its linguistic communities."
Caza said this development means that the pleadings will need to change to make sure the court is aware that "the situation is considerably more serious than it was when we started the litigation."
When Fitch was asked by reporters if he thought his proposed bill would be a enough to make the legal action go away, the health minister said, "that is a question that is before the courts."
New provincewide health council
Also Tuesday, Fitch told the legislature a health-system collaboration council would be established and be made up of the minister of health and the representatives from both regional health authorities. He said this would ensure a "patient-centred, accessible, responsible system that people can count on."
A news release from the Department of Health said the council would provide a provincewide perspective on development, recruitment and clinical opportunities.
Caza said the introduction of the council "provides absolutely nothing."
"The fact that different entities get together to discuss some of the issues provides no form of governance to the linguistic minority. So it is quite unfortunate."