PC Leader Blaine Higgs offers shifting answers on abortion funding in New Brunswick

New Brunswick PC Leader and incumbent premier Blaine Higgs answers questions from the media on Sept. 4, 2020. Silas Brown/Global News

The New Brunswick election campaign continued on Friday with PC Leader Blaine Higgs shifting goalposts when pressed by reporters on what it would take for him to fund abortions in private clinics in the province.

In New Brunswick, abortions are only funded by the provincial government at three locations: two hospitals in Moncton and one hospital in Bathurst, locations that critics say limit accessibility for those who need the procedure.

Abortions are only offered in the two locations because previous provincial governments have not repealed a regulation, known as Regulation 84-20, banning the funding of abortions outside of hospitals.

Read more: All our New Brunswick election 2020 coverage

New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that does not fund abortions outside of hospitals.

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But one private clinic, Clinic 554 in Fredericton, does perform abortions despite the procedure not being covered by provincial health care.

The issue has become a flashpoint during the campaign, with protests and rallies held throughout the province.

Higgs has said that if he’s returned to power after Sept. 14, he will not change the province’s directive and that it complies with the Canada Health Act.

Click to play video: 'Blaine Higgs met by protesters calling for abortion access in New Brunswick' Blaine Higgs met by protesters calling for abortion access in New Brunswick
Blaine Higgs met by protesters calling for abortion access in New Brunswick – Aug 22, 2020

But the federal government disagrees. Ottawa had reduced the Canada Health Transfer to New Brunswick by $140,216, as a result of patient charges for abortion services provided outside of hospitals in 2017.

Funding was only temporarily restored as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressure it placed on the health-care system.

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On Friday, Higgs was once again adamant that his decision is not in violation of the Canada Health Act.

“If there is an accessibility problem (around abortion), we would expect that that would be brought forward by our health authorities and they would they would recommend a solution to address that,” said Higgs at a press conference in Fredericton.

But Horizon Health Network, the English language health authority in the province has already raised the issue and it did so back in Oct. 2019.

Read more: New Brunswick Women’s Council calls for gender-specific commitments in new government

The board of Horizon Health passed a motion at the time passed a motion in support of Clinic 554, saying that the board would “advocate to the government of New Brunswick for payment to physicians to provide abortion services in a quality and safe environment outside of hospitals.”

The provincial government has not acted on the motion.

When pressed on the issue and reminded about Horizon Health’s motion, Higgs said he was not familiar with the motion.

He noted that people have raised questions on accessibility but deferred when asked about whether abortions would be made available at more hospitals.

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“So that’s a good question. And it isn’t one that I will answer, but it is one that I guess if the health authorities feel that we are not providing good access, then I would anticipate they would make that very recommendation,” said Higgs.

“We do offer service in public hospitals. If (health authorities) feel that needs to be expanded to provide better access then I would like to see that recommendation.”

Click to play video: 'Abortion clinic considers class-action lawsuit against provincial government' Abortion clinic considers class-action lawsuit against provincial government
Abortion clinic considers class-action lawsuit against provincial government – Aug 11, 2020

When pressed on the difference between funding an abortion performed in a private clinic and a vasectomy, a surgical procedure for male sterilization, Higgs said he was “not a medical expert.”

“If you want to understand how the rules apply, what Medicare covers and what it doesn’t cover, it isn’t a document that I produced,” said the PC Leader.

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“So for me, we follow the Canada Health Act. And for me, those are our guidelines and the federal government ensures that every province provides the same level of care and standards, although we have provincial ability to do so and responsibilities, that’s what they ensure we do.”

He said that if the federal government “or anyone else for that matter” thought the province was not complying with the Canada Health Act, that they would “challenge that.”

When it was pointed out that the federal government doesn’t believe the New Brunswick government was following the Canada Health Act by not funding abortions outside hospitals and had reduced the Canada Health Transfer as a result, Higgs said they should challenge it in a different way.

“Not through a situation where they actually hold us ransom but challenge it legally to define access and if we’re providing it or not. That is what the mechanism for remedy is,” he said.

“If that is followed because that is the right remedy and a decision is made, we will certainly follow that decision.”

Read more: Push to save Clinic 554 intensifies during N.B. election campaign

The federal government and Health Minister Patty Hajdu have said before that it’s believed any patient charges for abortions would be considered extra billing and would result in penalties.

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Under the Canada Health Act, the federal government is able to penalize provinces that fail to provide services including by withholding transfer payments.

The three other parties that had seats in the legislature at dissolution have already put forward their position on Regulation 84-20.

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers told Global News in an email that the party is “committed to maintaining funding for Clinic 554.”

Green Party Leader David Coon said his party would repeal Regulation 84-20. People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he would not change the status quo

NDP interim Leader Mackenzie Thomason has said he would fund Clinic 554.

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