More than ever, New Brunswick is grappling with the challenges of providing timely and effective healthcare as the positives of population growth and the harsh realities of a pandemic, have simultaneously illuminated the deteriorating state of our system. Deficiencies in healthcare provide several issues for the business community:
- Talent Attraction and Retention: As potential recruits contemplate relocation, their top concern revolves around access to a family doctor. Family well-being is paramount, and this consideration significantly impacts their decision-making process.
- Investment Confidence: Businesses evaluating expansion contemplate the availability of quality healthcare. The absence of adequate primary care raises concerns, potentially deterring investment and limiting economic growth.
- Absenteeism and Workforce Productivity: Delays in care translate into prolonged absenteeism, compromising workplace productivity. This exacerbates existing workforce shortages and hinders our region’s growth potential. A proactive approach to healthcare not only benefits individuals but also contributes to a robust workforce.
- Health Outcomes and Sustainability: Preventative care is essential to forestall chronic conditions. Inadequate primary care perpetuates poor health outcomes and escalates healthcare costs. A shift towards prioritizing access to preventative care can lead to healthier communities and reduced healthcare expenditure.
- Financial Strain on Healthcare: An overwhelmed reactive healthcare system drives up costs, burdening provincial health budgets and taxing businesses and citizens alike.
Taking a closer look at the Fredericton Region (Zone 3), which has had the highest number of citizens without a family doctor for several years, the New Brunswick Health Council’s Population Health Profile 2022 highlighted that “Only 80% of Fredericton and River Valley Area residents reported they have a family doctor, the lowest proportion in any of the health zones.” This echoed the earlier provincial trend in 2020, as “89.9% of citizens reported that they have a primary care provider, which represents a decline from 2017 (92.8%)”. In more recent news, issues range almost daily from Emergency Room staffing hours, radiology scan stresses, and access to numerous specialities and procedure wait times.
In 2021, the New Brunswick Government’s current health-care plan was constructed and published by the New Brunswick Department of Health. Undoubtedly influenced by the height of the pandemic, it was entitled “Stabilizing Health Care: An Urgent Call to Action”. Within this plan to stabilize, the 2023-24 budget provided $3.6 billion for health care, an increase of 10.6 per cent from the previous year. In the release of the 2024-25 capital budget, the New Brunswick Government referred to this continuing plan where it announced $199.8 million to be “invested in health-care infrastructure around the province”. This section, under the heading “Dependable public health care” contained the quote from Minister Steeves, “We have consistently said we would make decisions that are fiscally responsible and sustainable…Today’s capital budget reflects just that, as we see the progress we have made and recognize the work that is still to come.” The time to accerelate that work is now.
For several years, through our annual pre-budget submissions, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce has commended the government’s budget decisions which appeared focused on balanced budgets as viewed through a business lens, while also highlighting the importance of supporting economic growth. Equally, however, we have suggested that thanks to successful budget management, the province can assume a flexible responsiveness and make smart investments where necessary to provide much needed stability, growth, and sustainability within New Brunswick.
Given the current state of health care and a growing population, the time is urgent for this flexibility in the form of decisive large-scale investment and ambitious policy decisions in our health-care system. As the current guiding plan was stated to be an evergreen document, it is time to reflect on our current realities and embrace a philosophy to not simply ease existing pressures, but instead reform care to a level that encourages confidence amongst the existing population and reassures potential investors and newcomers concerning our province.
Other Maritime provinces, such as Nova Scotia, have clearly signalled their commitment to health-care investments and innovations, both in the form of infrastructure projects and recruitment and attraction of skilled service providers. Drawing from the same pool of talent, our policies, and commitments, therefore, should be just as clear and decisive, leaving no doubt as to peoples’ decision to live, work and conduct business here.
The example of Nova Scotia’s most recent 2023-2024 Budget clearly expressed their goals and motivation, as it was titled “More Healthcare, FASTER”. This document served to communicate to its population that “The Province’s top priority is healthcare”. From the total $6.5 billion invested into health care, the section labelled “Building More, Faster” outlined $538 million for healthcare capital projects, including, $275.1 million for the Halifax Infirmary expansion and Cape Breton Regional Municipality healthcare redevelopment projects and $91 million for construction and renewal of other hospitals and medical facilities across the province.
A further $354 million was allocated in Nova Scotia for retention incentives for nurses and other eligible healthcare and support workers in the publicly funded system. Utilizing an existing and valuable partnership, higher education institutions, Nova Scotia investments included $58.9 million to Cape Breton University to advance a new medical campus, a new collaborative care clinic at the NSCC Marconi campus site and an expansion of CBU’s health and counselling centre. It also outlined $37.4 million toward a new Institute for Innovation in Health at St. Francis Xavier University to help improve health in rural communities and $25 million for the Research Opportunities Fund to invest in more research linked to health innovation, mental health, and economic growth. In seeking to rapidly increase Nova Scotians’ access to healthcare workers, $1.3 million was provided for an orientation program for doctors trained outside Canada, and $110 million for the second year of retention incentives for nurses who commit to staying in the publicly-funded system and sign a two-year return of service agreement.
Compared to Nova Scotia’s example, it seems clear that both in terms of health-care funding and messaging, New Brunswick is not aiming high enough or moving fast enough. Rather than stabilize, we must strive to rapidly heal and improve our system. Rather than simply restore a previous standard, we must modernize to provide truly world-class health care. To do this, we must utilize all available resources, respond to the needs of professionals working within the system daily, maximize existing and potential partnerships, and seek new solutions to long-standing problems. We require a generational leap forward by rapidly improving and modernizing the system to provide the quality of care that New Brunswickers deserve and to ensure our ability to continue to grow.