After vacationing in New Brunswick nearly 10 years ago, Rodney Pavlica says he thought, "This is a place to retire." He grew up in Quebec and would be closer to his family there, and he could afford to buy a home and some land for himself and his dog.
Pavlica, 51, spent most of his adult life in Alberta, working 15-hour days running a roofing and construction company, but a workplace slip caused a hip injury that never went away. After a year and a half off work and receiving disability benefits, he decided it was time to make the move to New Brunswick.
Pavlica bought a home in Havelock and a truck with the last of his savings in 2018, and started looking for a new doctor to take over his care.
"I was looking for a little bit of land, a different quality of life. I know it's beautiful here, you can afford to buy property, so that's the reason I moved here," he said of the community located about 50 kilometres west of Moncton.
"I made a life choice to move out here and change my career, and my insurance was willing to pay for me to retrain in New Brunswick … as long as I got a doctor to take over my file."
Like tens of thousands of people in New Brunswick, Pavlica has yet to find a doctor, a fact that has had a negative impact on his life and should serve as a warning to others looking to move to the province, he said.
'I love the people here. It's just the medical care, unfortunately'
Pavlica only realized that finding a doctor was going to be a problem when he dialled 811 shortly after moving in, and was told by a Tele-Care operator that he should expect a three- to four-year wait.
"In Alberta, I was being taken care of and I had no idea New Brunswick was so … under hard times when it comes to medical care. I didn't realize that it was such a long wait period. It's not something you read about."
He thought he had gotten lucky when he was eventually matched with a nurse practitioner in Salisbury after making calls and sending emails to the minister of health, but said the nurse practitioner went on maternity leave not long after.
Since then, Pavlica has been told there is a new nurse practitioner who will take him. He said he is hoping she will be able to help him to manage his prescriptions for pain medication and sleeping pills, but it's too late for his disability benefit.
"When I moved here I [was] still receiving disability. But I couldn't find a doctor and I got cut off because I couldn't find a doctor," he said.
"It was the worst decision I ever made moving here. And I think anybody thinking of doing the same should think twice."
Last summer, suffering from chest pains, he resorted to travelling to Quebec, where he paid $3,000 to see a doctor, get some tests done and his prescriptions refilled, he said.
He had to pay because he is a resident of New Brunswick, and therefore is not covered by Quebec health insurance.
"If you can't get medical care, what are you supposed to do? You have to pay for it, you have to," he said. "I love it here — I love the people here. It's just the medical care, unfortunately."
Newcomers surprised by lack of care
Ginette Gautreau, interim executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, a collection of 17 organizations that advocate for a more diverse and inclusive province, says she worries the shortage of primary care physicians will deter immigrants from choosing New Brunswick.
"They might be pondering between two different provinces or looking at different options and then to hear that health care in New Brunswick can be especially difficult to access, it might deter them from coming to New Brunswick."
While she doesn't have data on how many newcomers are without a family doctor or nurse practitioner, Gautreau has heard anecdotally that it is a problem, she said.
As of Dec. 31, 2020, there were 44,226 people on the Patient Connect list in New Brunswick waiting to be matched with a primary care provider.
"We know many newcomers are on that list and waiting to get a doctor assigned to them. We certainly hear some frustrations," Gautreau said. "There may have been a disconnect between what is promised to them in the recruitment process … and then they arrive here and they realize there's actually a lot of barriers to accessing that health care."
You need people to grow your province. You need more people to come here and invest money and grow. And I don't know how New Brunswick even attempts to do that without medical services. - Rodney Pavlica
Many immigrants have better health-care services in their country of origin, she said. "And so it can be a bit disappointing for them when they arrive here in New Brunswick."
Gautreau said the gaps in health care could also factor into an immigrant's decision to move to another province, especially if they have chronic conditions.
Pavlica said New Brunswick is a "beautiful place" and "the people are awesome," but anyone thinking of moving to the province should know how difficult it is to access health care before they pack their bags.
"You need people to grow your province," he said. "You need more people to come here and invest money and grow. And I don't know how New Brunswick even attempts to do that without medical services.
"Since moving to New Brunswick, my life has been ruined."
Wait list getting shorter
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said that since December, when the Patient Connect wait list was at 44,226, it has been reduced by "over 10,000" patients.
"These removals from the list were due to several ongoing initiatives, including the matching of patients to nurse practitioner clinics and family doctors … and validation of those on the list prior to December 2019," Bruce Macfarlane wrote in an email.
In addition, he said, as of April 30 there are more than 9,000 patients whose names have been passed on to a primary care provider. The doctors or nurse practitioners have 60 days to decide whether they will take on those patients and notify Patient Connect.
"The wait list serves as a snapshot in time and fluctuates daily. As work is ongoing to match citizens with a primary care provider, there are also New Brunswickers adding their names to the list to connect with a provider. There are more than 2,000 new names added each month to the wait list," Macfarlane said.
He acknowledged there is "absolutely more work to do" but said the Department of Health is committed to eliminating the patient wait list.