Flemming says ‘talk is cheap,’ urges government to repurpose hospitals

ADAM HURAS Telegraph-Journal
January 26, 2015

FREDERICTON  • Former Health Minister Ted Flemming says “talk is cheap” – urging the Liberal government to move on the idea of closing rural hospitals in order to repurpose them as nursing homes or health clinics.

The proposal was floated by current Health Minister Victor Boudreau as he set out on the road to approach New Brunswickers with the goal of finding up to $600 million in savings and new revenues to slay the province’s structural deficit.

Flemming said on Monday that, if still in power, he would have addressed the future of the province’s hospitals.

In a potential sign of bipartisan support on a divisive issue that governments have eternally grappled with, the former minister – now in the critic’s benches – is telling the Liberals to act.

“The greatest problem I have seen in government is that knowing the right thing to do and having the will and commitment to do it is entirely two different things,” Flemming said. “Most people who smoke know that they should quit, but they don’t.

“Self preservation is a powerful force in the New Brunswick political landscape.”

When asked about Boudreau’s comments, Flemming stated: “Talk is cheap.”

Boudreau began a consultation tour of the province on Monday night in Pont-Landry.

The province is trying to get rid of a more than $400-million shortfall, what officials say amounts to a structural, built-in budgetary deficit. The government has spent more money than it took in for six consecutive years.

Hospitals, the province’s long-debated sacred cow, are back on the table.

“We have some small rural hospitals, and maybe we have to ask ourselves, ‘Do they best serve the community as a hospital with limited services, or maybe some of them can be converted into a nursing home, community health centre or both so that you’re keeping jobs in the area while repurposing the building and repacking some of the services?’” Boudreau said. “So I do think those are ideas that have to be looked at.”

Flemming backs a plan to repurpose existing facilities.

“The issue is not closing hospitals in the sense of putting brown paper in the windows,” Flemming said. “The province has these facilities, they are owned and paid for, so the question is ‘what is going to go on in the building?’

“What is the highest and best use of that building and those facilities as it relates to the needs and demands of the community?”

Asked if he would back a Liberal move to make those very decisions, Flemming said he wouldn’t “capitalize if somebody does the right thing.”

Flemming said there must be an analysis of community needs.

“If the community has an average age of over 55, well then you have to ask yourself what you’re doing with an obstetrics department,” he said. “These are legitimate questions that need and should be asked.”

The Rothesay MLA has forever maintained that “the great mistake” is that health care has been used as a vehicle for economic development and job creation.

“In many of these communities, the hospital is the largest employer, it’s the largest building, it provides economic spinoff, but is doing so its raison d’être?”

The Alward Tories held the line in health spending for two consecutive years – efforts heralded as something that hadn’t been done anywhere else in the country to date.

“It was obvious to me to start my work with the low-hanging fruit,” Flemming said.

“We did that, and I think we did it quite successfully.

“You start with administration, saving money on drug costs, economies of scale, smart purchasing, the realignment of duties – and to me, that was Phase 1.”

Flemming added: “The next step in that process, invariably would have been to put together a clinical services plan for the province. That would have been based on community needs.”

“That probably would have been one of the first things on my list if I were to continue as minister of health.”