Leaders in the Memramcook-Tantramar region are organizing a committee to co-ordinate the fight against provincial plans to cut overnight emergency room services, day surgeries and acute-care beds at Sackville Memorial Hospital.
During a public meeting in Sackville Wednesday night, MLA Megan Mitton announced the formation of a 12-15 member interim committee co-chaired by Fort Folly First Nation Chief Rebecca Knockwood and Sackville’s Mayor John Higham.
The interim committee would enlist the expertise of local people who could, for example, collect and analyze data, organize communications and contribute stories about their experiences as patients, relatives of patients or medical professionals.
‘Not going to take this lightly’
Chief Knockwood said the proposed cuts to the six rural hospitals would affect five First Nations.
“Five chiefs are being very vocal about this and they’re not going to let this slide,” she added.
“We had a meeting scheduled for tomorrow with Premier Higgs. Believe it or not, he cancelled last week. I don’t know why,” she added as the audience laughed.
“What I want to say is, when he comes, like he’s supposed to consult, right? When he comes in April or May, make sure it’s him and [Health] Minister Flemming because he likes to send his cronies because he doesn’t want to deal with people…especially First Nations,” Knockwood said.
“So make sure it is the premier who is here because we’re not going to sit back and take this lightly, that’s for sure.”
“There are two key things that need to happen,” Mitton told more than 300 people who had gathered in Mount Allison University’s Convocation Hall.
“The first is that we need to respond quickly,” she said, adding that the region needs to be ready to “push back and offer a different perspective” to Premier Higgs if he keeps his promise to visit the six rural communities affected by the proposed cuts to hospital services in April or May.
She said that became clear last week when the minister of health and the CEO’s of the two regional health authorities, Horizon and Vitalité, appeared before the legislature’s public accounts committee.
“It was very clear, they still love this plan and they feel that our communities and the citizens of New Brunswick just don’t understand and just aren’t willing to listen and that we’re too emotional,” Mitton said.
“I feel that the way they’ve been speaking about us is insulting, that we can’t understand complex problems, that we can’t be part of the solution,” she added to sustained applause.
Higham says opposition spreading
Mayor Higham told the meeting that sustained pressure caused the government to postpone its hospital cuts less than six days after they were announced and that part of that pressure came from the mayors in the six affected communities who adopted a concerted approach.
“There was a lot of feeling that, unfortunately, rural areas could be picked off on public policy because they’re just so small, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “But when we get them all together, it does matter and it does make a change.”
Higham added that opposition is now coming from other rural areas that feel threatened too.
“Within a couple of days of this happening, I got a few calls from mayors in smaller towns talking about their health centres; we heard from First Nations talking about their health centres; and, the design of those services in those even smaller places is contingent upon the type of health services that are nearby,” he said.
“So their fear is that they’re next and in essence, whatever happens with us is going to destroy their services as well.”
Elise Vaillancourt, vice president of the Mount Allison University Students’ Union, told the meeting she was pleased with the groundswell of support for the Sackville hospital and opposition to cuts to its services including the overnight emergency room.
“Since this announcement, we’ve heard from a lot of students that they’re really scared for what happens when their friend gets sick at two in the morning,” she said.
“Our issues that happen on our campus disproportionately happen between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.,” Vaillancourt added.
She said students often don’t have cars and can’t afford the $80 cab fare to Moncton.
“That’s completely unacceptable for a population of students who have the highest debt load in the country.”
She pointed out that Mount Allison students contribute to New Brunswick’s economy.
“We’re really proud to be here and so thank you all for being here supporting students,” Vaillancourt said.
“We’re happy to support you too and we love this little town.”
Doctors speak up
Sackville family doctor Allison Dysart and his recently retired colleague Ross Thomas both said the hospital cuts wouldn’t save the government any money, but would undermine patient care.
Dr. Allison Dysart said, for example, that even though the layoff notices that acute-care bed nurses at the Sackville hospital received earlier this month have been rescinded, at least two of them are now looking for work elsewhere because they feel their jobs here are no longer secure.
“To me, one of the things that I’m most upset about is that even though they’ve put forward this terribly planned ‘plan,’ which was anything but a plan, and they’ve taken it back, and yet they’ve still done damage,” Dysart added.
Thomas said the proposed cuts have created what he termed “a huge loss of trust” in the administration of the Horizon Health Network.
“I think they’ve done more harm to recruitment [of medical staff] in these past two weeks than all the good they’ve done in the past several years,” he added.
“I don’t know how to mend that fence, but it’s going to take awhile.”
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.