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New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs delivers the State of the Province address in Fredericton on Jan. 30, 2020. The political fallout since the cuts were announced this week has been unending for the Tories, who face a no-confidence vote.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

New Brunswick’s minority Progressive Conservative government is refusing to back down on changes to health care at rural hospitals despite growing opposition around the province and the departure of the deputy premier in protest – raising the likelihood of an early election.

Robert Gauvin, the MLA for Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, told a packed gathering Friday he will sit as an Independent in response to Premier Blaine Higgs’s plan to close emergency rooms at six rural hospitals during overnight hours.

Mr. Gauvin, who was appointed deputy premier in November, 2018, called the hospital cuts, including at the Enfant-Jésus Hospital in Caraquet where he was born, an "attack on rural New Brunswick.” He said the Premier wasn’t acting in the public’s best interest.

Emergency rooms in six N.B. community hospitals to begin closing overnight, minister says

“You must put people before politics,” Mr. Gauvin said in French, during a news conference in Shippagan. “I am now an Independent MLA.”

Mr. Gauvin was the second Tory to break from his party this week over the issue, after Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins backbench MLA Bruce Northrup said he couldn’t support the cuts. Mr. Northrup is publicly challenging the credibility of the government’s patient numbers used to justify the ER changes, and hasn’t ruled out voting against his own party.

The Sussex hospital, along with hospitals in Sackville, Perth-Andover, Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet and Grand Falls, are set to close between midnight and 8 a.m. starting March 11 as the province grapples with a shortage of medical staff.

The political fallout since the cuts were announced this week has been unending for the Tories, who face a no-confidence vote brought by the Liberals when the legislature resumes in March. The risk of an early election looms large for the PCs, who have been in power for about 15 months.

“This is the Tories’ biggest threat yet. They’re treading on very dangerous political waters,” said J.P. Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.

“Even if you try to rationalize this as being about moving resources around, it becomes an emotional issue very quickly. This could really galvanize public opinion.”

In the village of Plaster Rock, the ER closing means the distance to get to overnight emergency medical care will more than double, to almost 70 minutes by car. Instead of driving to Perth-Andover or Grand Falls, patients will need to travel to hospitals in Edmundston or Waterville, both nearly 100 kilometres away.

In Sackville, a town of more than 5,300 residents that’s home to Mount Allison University, a protest petition quickly gathered 10,000 signatures. Doctors at the hospital in nearby Amherst, N.S., say they’re worried the ER cuts will cause an influx of New Brunswickers driving across the provincial border for overnight care.

“This is absolutely unacceptable, and there needs to be an immediate reversal,” said Megan Mitton, a Green Party MLA for Sackville, who said she would vote to bring down the government. “This could mean that lives are lost.”

If the Greens support the Liberals, along with Mr. Gauvin, and the House Speaker Daniel Guitard steps down and rejoins the Liberal caucus, there would be enough votes to defeat the PCs. Kris Austin, Leader of the People’s Alliance party, also said Friday his party may end its support of the minority government over the ER cuts.

Watching his support dwindle, the Premier said late Friday afternoon he may not wait until the legislature resumes March 10, and may call an election sooner. But going back to the House would allow his government a chance to further explain the plan for health care, he said.

Rallies are planned for Monday outside the six affected hospitals, and petitions from around the province continue to pile up at the Premier’s Office. But the Tories so far have doubled-down in response to the opposition. Health Minister Ted Flemming said New Brunswick has needed to make difficult decisions about its health-care system for a long time.

The government said the affected hospitals have an average of only five emergency department visits a night, and the closings will allow resources to be shifted to daytime when doctors and nurse practitioners can see more patients. Many non-emergency visits are taking up valuable ER time, and could be better served elsewhere, according to the provincial government.

“A government has to govern,” Mr. Flemming said at a news conference in Fredericton. “There’s been enough studies, enough consultations, enough reviews, enough, enough, enough. We know what the problem is.”

The head of the province’s paramedics association, meanwhile, said the overnight cuts will put a strain on an already overstretched system. That could mean longer waits for ambulances as paramedics in rural areas have to drive further distances to find an open ER.

“It’s definitely going to have an impact,” said Chris Hood, of the New Brunswick Paramedics Association. “In some cases, we’re talking about hour-long drives to the next closest facility. We’re just keeping our heads above water as it is.”

The government is partly to blame for the staffing shortages, according to the province’s nurses union. New Brunswick’s hospitals have a shortfall of 400 nurses, with 40 per cent of the existing work force eligible to retire in the next five years, the union says.

Last April, the Higgs government killed a 2005 agreement with the province’s nursing schools, removing $8.7-million in funding that was intended to graduate more nurses. The New Brunswick Medical Society, which represents doctors, said it’s concerned about the changes to the ERs, but acknowledged the province’s health-care system needs to evolve.

Dr. Lewis, the political scientist, said it should be no surprise the Premier and his Health Minister are willing to go to the polls over health care. The Tories have been signalling all along that tough choices need to be made to pay down the province’s $14-billion debt.

“I wouldn’t put it past them to just keep going,” he said. “Higgs doesn’t appear afraid to fight an election over things like this.”