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N.B. premier not offering insight on how long appointed trustees will manage RHAs

Click to play video: 'Dismissal of board members from N.B. health authorities constitutional: expert'
Dismissal of board members from N.B. health authorities constitutional: expert
WATCH: It’s been about a week since New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs announced he had dismissed all the board members for the province’s two health authorities. Those dismissals raised a lot of questions, especially because board members are elected. But one constitutional expert says everything about the decision falls within the powers of the minister. Nathalie Sturgeon explains – Jul 20, 2022

Questions are being raised about what authority the New Brunswick government has to unilaterally dismiss elected members on the boards of the province’s two regional health authorities.

Premier Blaine Higgs fired all 30 members of the English and Francophone board of directors for Horizon and Vitalite Health Network. That decision came after several reports about an individual who died in the waiting room of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton and ongoing indicators the health-care system is in crisis.

In the meantime, two trustees, Suzanne Johnston and Gérald Richard, were appointed.

It’s a decision that constitutional lawyer Lyle Skinner said can only be made by the Minister of Health. Higgs, in his live-streamed address to the public, was simply the messenger.

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Skinner said there is legislation that grants any health minister the authority to dismiss boards, like the RHAs, if it “is in the public interest.”

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“There is not a separate threshold for whether it’s a reasonable decision or a correct decision,” he said.

“So, it’s just simply, did the minister form that opinion? That’s a large amount of judiciary deference. Again, the provisions of this act pre-date this government and this is a lawfully conferred power. There is no issue there.”

About half of the board members are elected at the same time as municipal elections, which took place in 2021. All 30 members served about a year and two months of their four-year mandate.

Each board has 15 voting members, eight are elected democratically and seven are appointed.

Skinner said the important thing is that nothing about the structure of the regional health authority board has changed, this is simply a temporary solution.

“There would be an expectation that the trusteeship would only exist as reasonably necessary,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “This wouldn’t be an indefinite solution. The purpose of the trustee is to deal with the urgent or critical matter and then to go back to formal process.”

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On July 15, Higgs said change had “to start at the top.” He said there were critical issues with upper management, which wasn’t allowing for the collaboration he was expecting to see in improving recruitment and retention, and dealing with staffing shortages in the short term.

“We are now at a crucial turning point,” Higgs said at the time. “It’s unacceptable.”

However, the timing around how long the trustees will remain in place remains to be seen. Municipal elections are not scheduled to take place again until 2025.

Skinner said RHA elections are under an exemption for byelections. Theoretically, that exemption would have to be removed — if there was a determination the trustee was no longer necessary — well before the next scheduled general election.

However, how long the trustees will remain in place is unclear.

On Wednesday, Higgs said in an email statement that the boards were dismissed “because we are facing a crisis situation with health care.”

“I am aware this is not a long term solution, however, I am not going to put a time frame on the trustees. They will stay in place as long as needed.”

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