Blaine Higgs sacks health minister, Horizon head

Premier Blaine Higgs dropped his health minister Friday and fired the CEO of one of two New Brunswick health networks after worsening news on the health-care front that included a “traumatizing” death in an emergency department’s waiting room.

Bruce Fitch is now health minister, switching places with Dorothy Shephard, who moves from Health to Social Development, Higgs announced, during a Friday afternoon news conference.

Higgs also announced Horizon Health Network CEO John Dornan was fired from his role, and replaced on an interim basis by Margaret Melanson, the network’s vice-president clinical services.

In addition, Higgs said he revoked the boards of both Horizon and Vitalité health networks and installed in their place a trustee for each.

WATCH | ‘It starts at the top:’ Higgs details changes to health-care leadership

Higgs says he was ‘appalled’ to hear of death in ER waiting room

The premier announced Friday he was firing the CEO of Horizon and replacing his health minister.

“We have a plan,” Higgs said. “It needs to be implemented. The situation we’re in today is the result of many, many years of successive governments refusing to deal with urgent situations.”

The shakeup of New Brunswick’s health-care leadership comes after a patient died in the waiting room of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital’s emergency department early Tuesday morning while waiting for care.

Witness John Staples said the man, a senior, had been waiting alone in a wheelchair, in visible discomfort for hours when he appeared to fall asleep. It was only during a routine check of people in the waiting room that a hospital employee realized the man had stopped breathing, he said.

Investigation ordered into death

Higgs said he was “appalled” when he heard a patient died while waiting to be seen in an emergency department.

He said he’s asked Horizon Health Network to undertake an investigation into what happened, and that if he’s not satisfied with the results, will ask for an external review.

Premier Blaine Higgs said the death of a patient in a Fredericton waiting room this week was traumatizing for the ER, the family and people who witnessed it. (Pat Richard/CBC)

“I have no doubt that every New Brunswicker is saddened and concerned by this story. We all want to know that if we go to the hospital we will receive help we need.”

Answering questions from reporters, Higgs said his hope is the investigation uncovers whether any standards for care at the hospital were not being met when the patient died in the waiting room.

However, he was quick to note he doesn’t believe fault lies with frontline health-care workers.

“I don’t believe this has anything to do with — and I’m just stating an opinion here — anything to do with the nurses on shift or the people on shift.

“I believe it’s a management issue. I believe there’s no co-ordination of activity and that’s what I’m trying to drive home here. If we don’t get better management results in our hospitals, we won’t get better health care.”

Switching ministers

Higgs praised Shephard’s work during the pandemic, and for her role in putting forward a new health-care plan for the province.

However, he said, Fitch would take a “fresh look” at how the department measures performance and where the shortcomings lie in health care.

Dorothy Shephard was shuffled from being minister of health to minister of social development, while Bruce Fitch was moved from social development to the role of health minister. (CBC)

“In the case of Bruce joining, sometimes a change is, some may say, better than a rest,” Higgs said.

“Bruce is a seasoned individual within the government … he’ll work with people anywhere, as Dorothy was, but bringing in a fresh look at, OK, how do we measure performance? How do we deliver on results? Where have we not provided and followed through on commitments made and what were the root causes of that?”

Revoking health authority boards

In place of the boards of directors for the two health authorities, Higgs said his government has appointed trustees Suzanne Johnston and Gerald Richard for Horizon and Vitalité, respectively.

“We are fortunate to have two outstanding and experienced individuals to come out of retirement to help guide us through these challenging times.

The boards of the health networks include members elected by the public and members appointed by government.

Higgs said the two boards were revoked to make quicker changes at the two health authorities.

We’re taking a crisis management approach here to allow decisions to be made, to allow direct consultation with appropriate people and get on with it.

“So we’re removing this situation of a bureaucratic stalemate … and this isn’t intended to be permanent but this is intended to get results. And right now I need to see results, and I want to remove the barriers and roadblocks for our health professionals to achieve them.”

Higgs said he didn’t have a timeline for when he expects results from the two trustees and was vague on what their targets were.

“There’s going to be some targets we’ll be setting out there that we want to achieve first. So I can’t put a timeline on it but I do want to be clear on what the outcomes need to be.”

‘Major step backwards,’ says ousted Horizon chair

Higgs’s announcement was met with swift criticism from Jeff McAloon, the Horizon board chair until Friday. 

“I am disappointed and disheartened by Premier Higgs’s unilateral decision to remove Dr. John Dornan as CEO of Horizon Health Network,” McAloon said in an email statement.

“I believe in Dr. Dornan’s experience and ability to affect real and positive change in the provincial health system.”

During the news conference, Higgs sidestepped a question about what it was Dornan failed to do in his role as CEO.

“I think what I’m demonstrating here is a need to get a groundswell in relation to frontline workers in the case of Margaret Melanson and her role in clinical services and you know, how we can direct that in the hospitals,” he said.

“I think in every hospital there needs to be a manager of clinical services that is really that gatekeeper of who is coming in? Who is going out? What’s the time in? How quickly are we managing that? And we need to get on the ground with that.

Dr. John Dornan was fired as CEO of Horizon Health Network after being officially named to the position only four months ago. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

McAloon characterized Higgs’s move as a centralization of health-care control.

“To me, and to the partially elected, local board I led, today’s announcement is a major step backward,” he said. 

“It represents the loss of community ownership and engagement and clinical, leadership expertise.

“Centralizing control within the Premier’s Office is not the answer. Politics is what got us here and is not the solution.”

McAloon said he had not heard from Higgs and only learned of his decision moments before the news conference began.

“I join with all New Brunswickers in their feelings of shock and want nothing more than to see our system stabilized.”

Johanne Lise Landry, spokesperson for Vitalité Health Network, said in an email that the health network did not receive any correspondence about its board being revoked.

There was also reaction from the medical community itself.

“Firing Dr. John Dornan would have to rank as one of the ill-advised, mindless and ill-considered decisions I have ever heard,” tweeted cardiologist Dr. Robert Teskey. 

Opposition reaction

Interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson wondered why it’s taking so long for Higgs to do something about problems in the health–care system.

He said the premier has been in office for four years, and he needs to explain to New Brunswickers what his new plan is and why he thinks it will work.

But Melanson is concerned that attracting new doctors won’t be high on the agenda for the province.

“We need health-care workers to be able to deliver these services, and they still have not even mentioned that today in this press conference,” said Melanson.

Green Party health critic Megan Mitton said successive governments of Liberal and PC stripes have contributed to the state of the province’s health-care system.

She’s concerned about the abandonment of partially elected health boards, a move she said goes against democracy.

“We should not be seeing more centralization of our health-care system,” said Mitton. “We should be going in the other direction and having more decision-making and power and resources at the local level.”

Melanson said he would like to see the legislature recalled to deal with this issue, something Mitton said she would support.

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By Jon Doe