New Brunswickers will endure long health-care waits until government enacts real reform

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Appeared in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, June 1, 2024
New Brunswickers will endure long health-care waits until government enacts real reform

According to a recent poll, only 14 per cent of New Brunswickers—the lowest percentage in the country—believe the government is doing a “good” or “very good” with health care. And there’s a good reason for this—the province has some of the longest wait times in the country. New Brunswick’s medical association has also sounded the alarm about the crisis brewing in their system alongside the release of their own plan to stabilize the province’s health-care system.

But the lack of access to family doctors remains only part of the problem. In fact, New Brunswickers are waiting too long for other health-care services including specialist consultations and non-emergency surgeries. According to the latest wait times data, in 2023 the average patient in New Brunswick could expect to wait 26.3 weeks to see a specialist (after referral from a family doctor) and an additional 26.3 weeks between that specialist appointment and receipt of surgery/treatment—for a total of 52.6 weeks.

For perspective, in 1993 (the first year wait times data were published) that total wait for the average patient in New Brunswick was only 12.3 weeks. In other words, patients in the province now wait four times longer for care than in the early 1990s.

The medical association’s stabilization plan calls for $600 million in additional government spending aimed in part to improve access to primary care, but would do little to directly tackle the province’s crippling wait times for non-emergency surgeries (i.e. joint replacement).

So what should the Higgs government do?

We’ve already seen some positive steps. In 2022, the government passed legislation and paved the way for a 24-month pilot project that moved the delivery of cataract surgeries to a local private clinic in Bathurst. The project was so successful it was expanded to the rest of the province after just six months.

The government should build on this success and look to other examples such as the Saskatchewan Surgical Initiative, which contracted out some types of surgeries to private clinics over a four-year period last decade. During the four years, Saskatchewan’s wait times shrank from a median of 26.5 weeks in 2010 (the longest in the country outside Atlantic Canada) to 14.2 by 2014 (the second shortest next to Ontario). When the initiative ended, the province’s wait times began to increase again.

The Higgs government could also examine the way it funds hospitals. Instead, of using “global budgets,” which are set for each year, the government could follow Quebec’s lead and fund hospitals on the basis of actual services provided to patients (known as “activity based funding"). This model creates an incentive for hospitals to deliver more care for patients, rather than seeing patients as a potential drain on their budgets.

In the end, patients in New Brunswick are waiting far too long for care. Unfortunately, without meaningful reforms—beyond what the government has already done, and what the medical association suggests—long waits will continue.

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