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New MLA on hot seat as new health minister

JOHN CHILIBECK LEGISLATURE BUREAU

Date: September 7, 2017
Publication: The Times & Transcript

FREDERICTON • The province’s new health minister is under pressure to get up to speed as controversy mounts over the Liberal government’s recent decision to privatize home care and a 24-hour nursing hotline.

Opposition Tory leader Blaine Higgs questioned the wisdom of giving the job to Benoît Bourque, a relative newcomer whose biggest task in the legislature up until this week was chairing the select committee on cannabis.

The outgoing health minister, veteran politician Victor Boudreau, announced Tuesday he was quitting cabinet and would not run in the next election.

“For Boudreau to make a major announcement like he did last week, with a major change in privatizing extramural, and then to be moved out of the portfolio, and for Bourque to take over, I mean, how much has Mr. Bourque been involved to this point?”Higgs said in an interview.

“Has he been an integral part of the discussions, or is he just there to toe the party line and accept whatever questions or flak that come out of it? So I think that’s unfair to Benoit because he’s a good guy.”

Appearing before reporters the first time Wednesday, Bourque pleaded for more time before giving his judgment on last week’s move to hand over the administration of the popular extramural home care program and the 24-hour, over-the-phone nursing service Tele-Care to the private firm Medavie Blue Cross.

The rookie Kent South MLA was also unwilling to give his opinion on last week’s announcement that some responsibilities of the independent office of the chief medical health officer would be farmed out to different departments.

“Obviously, there have been concerns expressed, and I’m looking at them, as a good minister of health should,” Bourque told reporters at the legislature after Premier Brian Gallant had introduced him as the minister-designate.“But I must say, a lot of thought has been put into these decisions. Years and years of preparation, negotiation and thought. So I have to take that into account as well. I’ll put that all into the big pot and I’ll be happy to answer the question eventually.”

Bourque, a 43-year-old former director at the international relations office at Université de Moncton, told reporters he had been briefed as a Liberal caucus member on the issues but had learned a lot more from his first departmental briefings Tuesday. He’s expected to be sworn in as minister Friday, responsible for a nearly $2.7-billion budget.

“It’s been barely 24 hours since I was announced as minister of health,” Bourque said when pressed by reporters.“Of course I’ve been following the news and have been apprised of the situation. So I’ll look into it further and come back to you in the future with further thoughts.”

Higgs said the appointment was an example of the centralization of power under Gallant.

“To me, it re-establishes this question: how important are the ministerial roles in this government? Are we just moving the dots around, to strengthen up certain areas before the election? It doesn’t matter who’s there in the position or for how long, to make a real impact, because we’re just waiting for more funding announcements and the hype around that.”

Earlier, the premier said the appointment had nothing to with the 2018 provincial election.

“We want to give new perspective and approaches to some of the files,”the premier said.

The nurses union, which has strongly criticized the move to privatization, is willing to give Bourque a chance.

President Paula Doucet said in an interview Wednesday she had already written a letter to the new minister-designate asking for a meeting.

“I need to sit down and have a conversation with him,” Doucet said. “We either want the decision reversed or we want him to clarify for us that nothing is going to change for the nurses working in the extramural program and the care for New Brunswickers.”

The union is especially worried about the deal that will see Medavie responsible for hitting key performance indicators. The labour organization represents 400 nurses in the extramural program, but not in Tele-Care.

“Knowing right now that the workload for extra-mural nurses is at best stretched to the limit because there are several vacancies, I don’t want them expected to do more with less. Nurses deliver high quality service to New Brunswickers and I don’t want to see that eroded either.”

Green Party leader David Coon said in an interview he was disappointed Bourque didn’t express an urgency to act on New Brunswick’s high suicide rate, long hospital emergency rooms wait times and the absence of a dementia strategy, given the province’s rapidly aging population.

“They’re all pressing and need immediate action.”

Coon said as a new minister, Bourque should roll back the changes to the extramural program and the chief medical health office.

“He’s the minister and he has a choice. We’ve got to have ministerial accountability on these items.”

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“I mean, how much has Mr. Bourque been involved to this point?”
BLAINE HIGGS

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