Premier McNeil: Stop dodging the health care debate

On Friday, the Nova Scotia Health Board quietly released the following statement:

Glace Bay Hospital’s emergency department will close today at 4:00 p.m., reopening Monday Feb 18 at 7:00 a.m.

That’s a 17-day closure, during which Glace Bay residents experiencing medical emergencies will have to travel 23 kilometers to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital. When they get there, they will find a poorly designed ER that is understaffed and overwhelmed with patients.

At best, barring further closures, the Glace Bay General emergency room will operate only 11 days in February.

Bear in mind, Glace Bay General is one of two hospitals the province proposes to keep open in its reorganization of health care delivery in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality—a reorganization whose goals include stabilizing emergency room schedules.

The situation in North Sydney and New Waterford is, if anything, worse. The Northside General Hospital ER was closed 6,606 hours in the last fiscal year. There are only 8,760 hours in a year, so the ER was open less than 25 percent of the time. New Waterford Consolidated Hospital’s ER was open barely half the time.

Unlike many Cape Bretoners, I favor the government’s plan for restructuring health care in Cape Breton. Yes, the government failed to consult doctors and other health care providers, thus alienating key professionals who might have been allies. Yes, they announced it without the kind of detail that would have allowed thorough analysis, let alone a firm construction schedule.

Nevertheless, a community of 92,000 people can’t expect to maintain four general hospitals, each providing a full range of medical services including 24-hour emergency care. The government plan would modernize and expand the hospitals in Glace Bay and Sydney, while replacing antiquated buildings in New Waterford and North Sydney with new collaborative care centers. Those centers will retain many of the services provided at the hospitals that will close, but not in-patient beds or emergency departments. The plan also includes 50 new long term care beds.

The predictable protest that greeted the plan calls to mind the similarly wrongheaded furor that greeted a wave of hospital closures in the 1980s, when government decided we could no longer afford a choice of Catholic and Protestant hospitals.

The NDP, with Liberal MLAs Derek Mombourquette (Sydney-Whitney Pier) and Geoff MacLellan (Glace Bay) in their crosshairs, take every opportunity to fan the outrage, encouraging Cape Bretoners in our longstanding belief that money is no object and every service should be maintained in every location forever, as our birthright. It’s the same mindless populism that fuels the know-nothing campaign for “equalization fairness” in Cape Breton. God help us if this promise-everyone-everything band of pseudo-socialists ever wins power.

Navigating this minefield would be difficult for a government with a knack for communications. The McNeil government and its unitary health authority (what a predictably colossal mistake that’s turning out to be) are making a bollocks of it. Instead of standing up for a good plan to fix health care in Cape Breton, they have unilaterally changed time-honored democratic norms in the House of Assembly in a foolhardy attempt to stifle debate.

The government and its centralized health authority are now working their way through a 9-to-12-month “functional planning process,” after which we may learn more.

This has all the arrogance and tone-deafness of a government in its dying years.

Here are two suggestions for Premier Stephen McNeil:

Stop hiding from your critics. Stop behaving if you were doing something shameful. Stop arguing about whether it’s a crisis. You have the outlines of a good plan, easily defended. Bring on the debate. Welcome it. You can win this argument, but only if you and your government take every opportunity to stand up for what you’re doing to fix health care in Cape Breton.

Get the project moving. Given the public mood, there’s a good chance the job of implementing it will fall to Premier Tim Houston. It would be nice if the project was far enough along by the next election, Houston won’t be able to kill it in fulfillment of a dumb election promise.