All options on table as province looks to future of health care

·3 min read

The province is set to undertake a major consultation process on the future of health care and it says everything is on the table.

The Department of Health kick–started the consultations Tuesday by releasing a policy paper about the state of the province's health–care system titled "Striving for Dependable Public Health Care."

The province will hold virtual town halls in about a dozen communities, including the six where the province had announced reductions in ER hours that they later walked back, and said "anyone interested in attending a virtual session will be able to register to attend."

In an interview with Information Morning Fredericton, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said she's looking forward to hearing from New Brunswickers about what they want from their health–care system.

She promised all topics and potential reforms will be on the table if the public demands it, including more private services, user fees and increased access to abortion.

"We have to look at the whole picture," said Shephard.

"I'm not predetermining anything."

Family doctors

Shephard said she expects to hear a lot from New Brunswickers about primary care, including family doctors.

"Ninety-five per cent of New Brunswickers have a family physician, but only 55 per cent of them can see one within five days," said Shephard.

"We need to try with our medical society and our family physicians to find out how we can make sure that care is delivered more comprehensively and in a very timely fashion to keep people out of ERs and to keep people out of hospital."

The New Brunswick Medical Society said 2018 polling indicated 44,000 New Brunswickers did not have access to a primary care doctor.

Shephard said she understands the need to hire more nurses and doctors, but said every other jurisdiction is in the same position.

While she wants to make New Brunswick a more attractive place for medical professionals, changing how services are delivered may be necessary.

She said the aging population makes these consultations all the more important.

"Twenty-six per cent of our population is going to be over the age of 65 in five years," said Shephard.

"The response needs to be to what their needs are at that point and so it needs to be evolving. I don't know that there are going to be that many more doctors available. So how do we utilize our medical professionals in the best way? What services can we shift with other medical professionals? Those are the challenges and the discussions we have to have at a community level and I think they're very ready for that conversation."

Consultations during COVID

The push to evaluate the province's health–care system comes as COVID-19 restrictions remain, with one zone in lockdown and another in the red phase of recovery.

But Shephard said the review has already been delayed several times and can't be put off forever.

"The challenges are there, they're going to remain there and our province has been without a real five year health–care plan for a year now," said Shephard.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

"We need to be able to deliver a five year plan to the [Regional Health Authorities] that we can be accountable to and that they can be accountable to."

Shephard said the province is engaging with 26 different stakeholder groups, including First Nations, as well as other government departments.

Shephard said the province must abide by the Canada Health Act, and she believes health care must remain public and available to all, but she did leave the door open to more privatization.

"I don't know how the next several years is going to evolve … with the way that maybe a private sector comes into this," said Shephard.

"We already use pharmacists, they're private. We already use some, you know, some other medical professionals who come into this."

People looking to give feedback on the department's discussion paper can email them to healthplansante@gnb.ca.