From 4 to 1: The regional health authorities will be folded into a single board | CBC News

Health Minister John Haggie and Finance Minister Siobhan Coady say the merger of the four health authorities will create more consistency in health care in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Newfoundland and Labrador’s 2022 provincial budget included sweeping changes to health care, but it’s not yet clear how those changes will affect patients.

Newfoundland and Labrador spends more per capita on health care than any other province, and will spend even more this year. The government plans to spend about $3.4 billion on health care in 2022, which is 38 percent of this year’s budget.

The four regional health authorities are being integrated into one, which will govern the entire province. During her budget speech, Finance Minister Siobhan Coady said the merger is being done to avoid duplication and provide consistency.

“It will improve decision making with streamlined processes, effective reporting structures, data management and accountability,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s Economic Recovery Team’s 2021 report recommended integrating Eastern Health, Central Health, Western Health and Labrador-Grenfell Health into one provincial health authority, but this is the first concrete step in that direction.

Health Minister John Haggie said Thursday that the merger will take 12 to 18 months and that most of the changes will involve management, rather than frontline workers.

“It’s about the back end. It’s not about the provision of health care in the front end,” Haggie said.

Vital local input: Opposition

PC opposition health critic Tony Wakeham, former chief executive of Labrador-Grenfell Health, said the government must ensure the new provincial health authority does not neglect rural parts of the province, particularly Labrador.

“It’s critical that Labrador be recognized for the uniqueness and challenges that it has in terms of providing health care,” said Wakeham.

Acting NDP leader Jim Dinn and PC health critic Tony Wakeham say the provincial government must do more to tackle the crisis in health care. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Acting NDP leader Jim Dinn said he is not convinced the merger will save money in the long run.

“It’s all going to come down to the devil in the details. What do you mean by efficiencies? And how is that money going to be reinvested?” Dinn said.

Haggie did not say where the new health authority will be based, but said he will emphasize local input.

“As an MHA from an area outside of Avalon and having spent several decades in health care, that’s something I want to make sure we address early on in the governance structure.”

Health system can’t afford job losses: union

Haggie said the chief executives of the regional health authorities were told about the merger Wednesday night, and they saw the changes coming. He said that the Department of Health will look for a new executive director to govern the new provincial health authority.

He said some people may leave their current roles but will be offered “comparable” roles, while others may retire.

“This is not about mass layoffs or layoffs of any kind,” he said.

Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Public and Private Employees Association, insisted that jobs must not be lost in the transition from four regional health authorities to one.

“There is no place in health care right now where we can afford to lose even one person,” he said.

Health care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador have struggled with understaffing, mandatory overtime and 24-hour shifts. Just this week, Haggie said some surgeries may be delayed this summer due to a nursing shortage, adding to the existing backlog of surgeries.

Changes in emergency services

Emergency services in Newfoundland and Labrador are being streamlined and emergency dispatch centralized, a change that follows the provincial government’s plan to bring 911 operations under the Department of Justice.

The Health Accord NL recommended merging the province’s air ambulance service and more than 60 ground ambulance operators. The 2022 budget indicates that work will begin to “modernize and integrate” ground and air ambulances, although there is no timeline yet.

The Health Agreement also recommends closing emergency rooms in some rural areas and using virtual emergency services instead. The budget does not specifically recommend closing any emergency rooms, but does include $3 million for virtual emergency services.

“The concept of virtual emergencies is very useful for rural communities,” said Haggie.

Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, and Dr. Susan MacDonald, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, say they would like the government to do more to prevent further job losses in Health Care. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

The president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, Dr. Susan MacDonald, discussed closing emergency services in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. She said that she would have liked the province to spend more on recruiting and hiring family doctors.

“Virtual care certainly has a role to play, but it’s not a substitute for having a family doctor,” he said.

The province is spending $10 million to renovate the emergency room at the Health Sciences Center in St. John’s. Haggie said some of the renovations are related to building the mental health and addiction hospital next door, which will use the same emergency room.

Haggie said the project will be completed in three phases, with the final phase scheduled to be completed in 2025 or 2026.

A new health college

The provincial government is consolidating post-secondary medical programs, including pharmacy and nursing, under a single health college for the entire province.

“I think it will be welcome at Memorial University to have a comprehensive medical program there,” Haggie said.

MacDonald said he’s cautiously optimistic about the plan because it will give students studying different aspects of health care a chance to collaborate.

“I don’t know how that’s going to play out, and I’d like to see a lot more detail on that,” MacDonald said.

The government is also spending $3 million to increase the number of openings in Memorial University’s nursing program by 25 percent.

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