New Brunswick’s new health plan includes no sweeping changes

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New Brunswick's new health plan includes no sweeping changes

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The Higgs government’s much-anticipated health plan is out, promising a range of new tools and targets to improve the system in New Brunswick but no sweeping changes to address some of the sector’s most chronic problems.

The plan promises to reduce surgical wait times by half by the fall of 2023 thanks to electronic referrals to orthopedic surgeons and an “e-consultation” system for faster access to specialists.

Those measures, included in the document released Wednesday morning, are on top of elements rolled out earlier in the week aimed at addressing primary care and long-term care.

But there are few details on how the province will address a growing shortage of doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals, which has been identified as one of the biggest challenges in the system.

The plan says “communities and providers will become official partners” in recruitment efforts and will receive financial grants to help them develop “promotional materials” to attract workers.

It also promises new training models, shorter training programs and faster recognition of the credentials of health professionals trained outside Canada.

And it says it will lean on “non-traditional” providers such as reflexologists, chiropractors and life coaches, as well as volunteers, to fill gaps.

I am struggling to understand how these goals will become a reality when we are facing a severe shortage of primary health-care providers– Kris Austin, People’s Alliance

According to the plan, 35 per cent of family doctors will reach retirement age in the next five years, and almost one-third of nurses are 55 years old or older.

In a statement, People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin questioned the plan’s ambition, given the scant details on recruitment.

“I am struggling to understand how these goals will become a reality when we are facing a severe shortage of primary health-care providers such as doctors and nurses,” he said.

No closures

The plan also has no closures of small hospitals or reductions to emergency departments in those facilities — tough decisions that health officials said in February 2020 were necessary and could not be put off for long.

“These are hard challenges that we have to address and we can’t just lay off,” the then-deputy minister of health Gérald Richard told a committee of MLAs at the legislature at the time. “We have to do something.”

Richard made the comment just days after the Progressive Conservative government withdrew a plan to reduce hours at emergency departments in six small hospitals. 

He and assistant deputy minister René Boudreau said at the time that the public’s desire for emergency services near where they live was drawing strained resources away from other parts of the system that would benefit more patients.

But Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said Monday no hospitals or emergency departments will close, or see reduced hours under her plan.

Richard is now retired and was appointed this week as one of two co-chairs of a task force that will “help guide the objectives” of the health plan and make recommendations to the minister.

Shephard will speak to reporters about the plan at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday.

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