Promised health-care reform consultations to begin soon, wrap up in March, says minister

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New Brunswick's health minister says she now has a framework for health reform consultations that she hopes can begin soon and wrap up by the end of March 2021.

Dorothy Shephard said some technical details still have to be worked out but she wants a broad discussion on how the province should address chronic staffing shortages in the system.

"Much of this is probably going have to be done virtually, but we want to make sure we get the biggest possible participation we can get in these COVID times," she said Friday.

This week, three mayors of communities where hospitals were going to see emergency department reductions earlier this year said they were still waiting for the consultations Premier Blaine Higgs promised in February.

The government announced the nighttime closure of six small-hospital ERs as a way of shifting scant resources to the delivery of primary care during the day to benefit more patients.

But large protests prompted Higgs to backtrack within days of the announcement.

He promised to visit the six communities and to convene a health summit in June to look at other ways of addressing the shortages.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended that plan but Shephard said she has now settled on a timeline that would see consultations unfold during the winter and wrap up by March 31.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

The staffing challenge that the February plan was aimed at addressing led Horizon Health to close seven inpatient acute-care beds last month at the Hôtel-Dieu of St. Joseph hospital in Perth-Andover. It was one of the six hospitals affected by the February plan.

The Progressive Conservatives added $9.2 million to the health budget this year for recruiting doctors to rural areas and for adding nurse practitioners to clinics and emergency departments.

Shephard acknowledged that the consultations won't necessarily lead to a decision that makes everyone happy.

"We are not ever going to please everybody but my hope is that we can come up with a vision that communities will get behind because they see what it can do for their community," she said. "We don't want to leave any community behind."

The mayors of the six communities that would have seen reduced ER hours "understood that changes might have to occur," she said.

"That was the one of the reasons I said I want to know what communities fear. In understanding what those fears are, maybe we can address them along the way. That's why we can't do it in isolation."