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Blaine Higgs’ stance on rural hospitals careful after February policy retreat

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New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative leader is trying to extinguish fears he’ll revive plans to cut acute care beds and ERs at rural hospitals, while also declining to confirm if existing levels of service will continue if he’s re-elected.

Blaine Higgs was campaigning Saturday in front of the rural hospital in the village of Perth-Andover, as voters in New Brunswick headed to the first of two advance polling days for the Sept. 14 provincial election.

The rural hospital issue – and how to shift health resources to care for an aging population – has proved to be one of the most volatile for the Tories over the past year.

Read more: All our New Brunswick election 2020 coverage

 

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The leader of the province’s minority government had to scrap plans in February to reduce ER hours and convert acute-care beds into long-term care at the hospital in Perth-Andover, along with similar rural facilities in Sussex, Sackville, Grand Falls, Caraquet, and Saint-Anne-de-Kent, after a public outcry.

During his campaign stop in Perth-Andover, Higgs told reporters he’d just met with the mayor of the rural community and had committed to keeping emergency rooms open and acute care beds at the local hospital.

But he stopped short of committing to maintaining existing levels of service, telling reporters that will depend on “discussions with the community.”

“I said I will work with the community to figure that out, because there is a challenge there … I will absolutely commit we will be working with communities to find solutions that communities feel comfortable with because we need their support to make it real,” he said.

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During his opening remarks, Higgs said ways must be found to improve care for seniors in hospitals who need access to long term care beds.

Asked if the party will commit to funding more long-term care facilities and beds, Higgs said the province must find some shorter term solutions.

“We have facilities right now that aren’t staffed properly all over the province,” he said. “We have an infrastructure problem and a facility issue, none of which will be solved overnight.”

“How do we utilize the facility (the rural hospital) to provide the right level of care for people that have no other options at this point … I just feel that we can do better for residents that are in a hospital right now,” he said.

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Read more: New Brunswick party leaders vow to increase population if they are elected

Higgs noted that during the pandemic many seniors were successfully shifted into “the appropriate levels of care” to free up hospital beds for a possible surge of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic – suggesting that innovative solutions are possible.

He also announced during the campaign stop that his government will ensure seniors have access to high-dose flu shots this fall, citing the move as an example of a way to reduce pressure on the health system.

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers focused on the hospital issue during the recent election debate, saying Higgs lost the trust of citizens when he tried to cut services to rural hospitals, calling it “reckless and damaging.”

The Tory leader said on Saturday that he doesn’t think the Liberals have a solid plan themselves.

“To walk away, and ignore the challenges we face, all we’re doing is pushing the problem further down the road,” said Higgs.

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Vickers was campaigning in Oromocto on Saturday, but didn’t make any announcements.

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People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin was campaigning in Saint John, N.B., and pledged to ensure every school has food programs available to kids of all ages as one method of reducing child poverty.

Green Leader David Coon was campaigning in Fredericton all weekend.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2020.