Hundreds of demonstrators marched Thursday to the Sackville Memorial Hospital to protest against cuts in services announced this week by the Horizon Health Network and the increasingly shaky minority government led by Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs.
The demonstrators waved placards and chanted “Hey McGrath, hear our call, 16 hours is way too small,” a reference to the overnight, eight hour closure of the Sackville emergency room, one of the cuts defended by Horizon President and CEO Karen McGrath who was inside the building for a series of meetings.
“Hey, ho, hospital cuts have got to go,” demonstrators chanted as they also protested against the closure of the hospital’s 21 short-term, acute-care beds. They will be converted into beds for patients awaiting longer-term care in nursing homes. If the cuts go ahead, the Sackville hospital’s operating room will also be closed in about six months and the day surgeries now performed there will be moved to Moncton.
“I’m so proud and glad to see so many people here showing how much we care about our hospital,” said Green MLA Megan Mitton as she addressed the crowd through a bright red bull horn.
“I will fight with you,” Mitton said as the demonstrators cheered, whistled and rang bells. “I will fight with you every step of the way,” she added, pledging to defend the threatened services.
“Sackville doctors who practise here are not going to be able to admit their patients to this hospital,” she said. “We cannot accept this and we’re going to fight this,” she added as she urged people to sign a paper copy of an online petition that has gathered nearly 10,000 signatures.
Mitton promised to present the petition to the legislature when it reconvenes next month, but explained she needs a paper copy because under the rules, online petitions cannot be tabled in the House.
“We’re going to keep organizing and we’re going to work as a community,” Mitton promised.
‘We have been deceived’
Elaine Smith, chair of the Sackville Memorial Hospital Foundation told the demonstrators that donors have given more than $1.2 million over the last 10 years to buy equipment for every department in the hospital — all with the blessing of the Horizon Health Network.
“We have been told by CEO Karen McGrath that our day surgery department is an important component of the Horizon network. Over 3,200 surgeries have taken place in Sackville since 2016,” Smith said.
“We have been told that this takes the pressure off the Moncton hospital and allows surgeries to be done more quickly, making it a win-win for all,” she added.
“The bottom line is that we feel that we have been deceived,” Smith said. “We feel that these decisions have been in the works for awhile,” she added. “There has been absolutely no consultation.”
Smith told the crowd she fears that the hospital cuts will have repercussions.
“Doctors are not going to have beds to admit their patients to. Do our doctors want to stay here?” she asked. “Probably not.”
Smith also wondered whether elderly people will want to stay in Sackville and whether parents would want to send their students to Mount Allison University.
“This is something that we have to fight and fight together to the bitter end,” she concluded as demonstrators cheered and applauded.
‘Nonsense’ hospital cuts
Sackville’s Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken sounded angry as he waved a copy of Thursday’s Moncton Times & Transcript which published an editorial calling the hospital cuts reasonable.
“In that article they say, ‘time to calm down and look at the realities,’” Aiken said as the demonstrators booed.
“Well, the realities are that our emergency room takes an overflow from Moncton. Doctors are telling me that three-quarters of the patients on any shift are from outside of Sackville,” he added.
“So, what they want to do is take the overflow and shove it back,” the deputy mayor said.
“They want to change acute-care beds to chronic-care beds. That’s a good idea,” Aiken added. “Open the empty wing and turn that into chronic-care,” he shouted to sustained cheering.
Aiken also pointed out that since the Sackville emergency room won’t accept patients after 10 p.m., the overnight closure would actually last 10 hours, not just eight.
He reported that he and Mayor Higham have been on the phone “going crazy for a couple of days” organizing a protest against the cuts.
“There’s more plans in the works to involve the other communities that are affected by this and get them involved and tell the province from one end to the other how we feel about this nonsense,” Aiken said.
New Brunswick’s Liberal leader Kevin Vickers, who attended Thursday’s rally, repeated his promise to try to bring down the Higgs government after the legislature reconvenes in March.
Vickers says he will introduce a motion of no-confidence over the hospital cuts in Sackville and five other smaller communities.
“This is a health and safety issue,” he told Warktimes, “and it’s totally unacceptable in our province that rural New Brunswickers or people living in smaller communities would have a less standard of care than people in our large centres.”
When I observed that this would be “one hell of an issue to fight an election on,” Vickers replied:
“Well, I think this is going to be the election issue undoubtedly because we also believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Mr. Higgs has been hiding behind bureaucrats on this issue. He has not come out and told us exactly what his entire plan is and we know that this is just the beginning, so we’re calling him out on it and we’re not going to tolerate having New Brunswickers’ health and safety in danger.”
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report. He currently writes for The New Wark Times where this story first appeared.