The Liberal Opposition is extremely concerned about the state of New Brunswick’s healthcare system and condemns the Higgs government’s lack of action to address the growing crisis.
“In February 2020, the Higgs government tried to implement a plan to close emergency rooms overnight at several rural hospitals. Thanks to public outcry and the Liberal Party’s threats to bring down their minority government, they cancelled this decision” says Leader of the Official Opposition, Roger Melanson. “Now after a year and a half of inaction by the Higgs government, we are seeing hospitals at maximum capacity, with some forced to reduce their emergency room hours, and ambulance offload delay times increasing rapidly. This is beyond unacceptable.”
There are many factors contributing to the crisis in New Brunswick’s healthcare system, including the growing healthcare professional shortage, low healthcare funding, and the lack of a proper healthcare resource strategy.
Healthcare professional shortage
The shortage of healthcare professionals is worsening at an alarming rate in New Brunswick and there is a desperate need for immediate action to be taken.
“We are seeing a steady decline of workers in almost every healthcare profession, especially those in a hospital setting, 40% of registered nurses in the province will reach the age of retirement in the next five years, and over 20% of our nursing graduates are leaving to work in other jurisdictions” says Roger Melanson, interim Liberal leader “These are alarming statistics, yet the Higgs Government has yet to produce a real recruitment and retention plan.”
While some indicators show growth, the small increases are far from sufficient to address the severity of the problem in New Brunswick.
“The number of practicing Nurse Practitioners has increased slightly, and we have seen a small increase in internationally educated registered nurses, but not these increases are insufficient to meet existing demands,” says Melanson. “Premier Higgs needs to realize he cannot simply establish certain targets be met without providing the resources necessary to achieve them.”
PEI has recently added 100 new nurses to their health system and has invested into the creation of a multi-year recruitment and retention program.
“We cannot afford to lose any more of our workers or graduates, but what is the Higgs government doing to keep them here? The importance of retention is often overlooked but it is vital to the stability of our healthcare system,” says the Opposition Leader. “Premier Kenney in Alberta is currently proposing a wage decrease to their nurses, has Premier Higgs considered recruiting the disgruntled nurses from Alberta by offering them positions in New Brunswick?”
Low healthcare funding
With neighboring provinces often offering higher salaries and incentive packages, New Brunswick is at a disadvantage in terms of recruiting new nurses and retaining nursing graduates. The total provincial spending increase for salaries within the hospital system rose only 0.3% in 2018-2019 and represents the smallest increase in the last 12 years.
“When will the Premier realize the situation cannot be addressed without providing fair and competitive wages. Having a ‘my way or the highway’ approach during contract negotiations does not sell the province as a great place to live and work” says Melanson. “Competitive salaries and incentive packages are investments into the health of New Brunswickers and the stability of our healthcare system.”
The New Brunswick Medical Society has also identified low healthcare funding as a challenge currently facing our healthcare system. New Brunswick has the lowest per capita health expenditures in the Atlantic provinces.
The lack of a proper healthcare resource strategy
In June 2019, the former Minister of Health Ted Flemming released a 10-year nursing resource strategy that aimed to recruit 130 nurses a year. This strategy included 21 very vague action items for which we have seen little to no progress.
“The 10-year plan presented in 2019 would not have been sufficient to address the nursing shortage even if it was executed perfectly,” says Jean-Claude D’Amours, Official Opposition critic for Health. “If a more robust plan with real action items and investments into our healthcare workers had been implemented, we would likely have been in a better position in terms of hospital staffing when the pandemic began. I am very worried we will see high burnout rates by hospital workers following the pandemic.”
In April, the current Minister of Health Dorothy Shephard said her department was focused on ensuring every New Brunswicker had a primary healthcare provider within six months.
“Getting over 40,000 people off the waiting list for a primary care provider within six months would require a comprehensive strategy and significant investments, without this, it is an empty promise,” says the Liberal Health critic. “Access to primary care is a serious problem in New Brunswick and it is irresponsible for the Minister to make declarations like this unless she is certain it can happen. It has been roughly three months since this statement was made, when can we see a progress report?”
The Official Opposition Leader and the critic for Health believe immediate action needs to be taken to address the crisis currently facing the province’s healthcare system, and it starts by developing a detailed retention and recruitment plan that includes real investments in human resources.
“The first step in improving the state of our healthcare system is developing strategy with real, measurable action items that will encourage our current healthcare professionals to stay in the province and entice healthcare professionals from other jurisdictions to come here” says Jean-Claude D’Amours
“The province needs a retention and recruitment plan that includes financial investments,” says Roger Melanson. “We need to pay nurses and other healthcare professionals fair and competitive wages, and provide incentives to keep our provincially produced nursing graduates here as well as recruit from other jurisdictions.”