Premier Andrew Furey said Monday he still has confidence in Health Minister John Haggie, even as Furey called aspects of the province's health-care system "a crisis," a phrase which the health minister has so far avoided using.
While he didn't say the health-care system as a whole is in crisis, Furey did say the problems many face in health care do constitute a crisis.
"It's a crisis for those experiencing the system when it doesn't work for them, it's a crisis because of the pandemic, in fact, it's amplified by the pandemic. The system is broken," said Furey during question period.
Haggie held an unexpected briefing an hour and a half before the opening of the legislature to announce measures to address the province's family doctor shortage.
The measures include new collaborative team clinics, which use nurse practitioners and other health-care workers to address patient needs in addition to a family physician.
The province plans to expand seats in nursing programs, particularly in rural areas.
Haggie said the province will establish a health-care worker recruitment office, and create a pilot program to guarantee full time salary for physicians who open a new family practice for two years.
When asked why it has taken so long for the province to address problems in primary care, Haggie, who has been health minister since 2015, said he was first focused on improving the mental health-care system, and then had to divert resources to address the pandemic.
"The reason that is taking so long, quite frankly, is we have limited resources within the department...and these people have been working round the clock for 18 months, keeping everyone safe," he said.
Furey reiterated his confidence in the health minister during question period, but did not specifically address the minister's performance. Furey said the health department is implementing short, medium and long term strategies to address problems in health care.
Timing and substance
Members of the opposition parties questioned both the timing and substance of the announcement.
Opposition leader David Brazil told reporters that the health minister made the health-care announcements because he has been "pushed into a corner." Brazil said many of the new measures had already been in play.
"I'm not reassured that the health portfolio is going in the right direction," he said.
Brazil said he was pleased to see the premier use the word "crisis" to describe the province's health-care system, but criticized the health minister for avoiding the term.
"It's time he either accepted it, or it's time that the premier took a leadership role," he said.
NDP MHA Jim Dinn also questioned the timing of the announcement, calling it "reactionary" and "last minute."
"Why weren't these out there before?" he asked.
NLMA, RNU react
Representatives from two organizations representing some of the province's health-care workers say the plan is a start, but they would like to see more.
Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Dr. Susan MacDonald said the plan is a sign that the government is taking the province's doctor shortage seriously, but pointed out that some aspects, like the physician recruiter and the bursary program, had previously been in place but lapsed due to budget cuts.
According to the NLMA, one in five residents of the province do not have a family doctor.
MacDonald said while the NLMA supports collaborative care clinics, they do not solve the doctor shortage, since the physicians who will staff the clinics are already in the system
"It's shuffling the chairs on the Titanic's deck as the ship sinks," she said.
Yvette Coffey, the president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador, said the union is pleased to see plans to create a health human resource strategy and health-care worker recruitment office.
She said the union is also pleased that the government plans to increase the number of seats in nursing programs, particularly in rural areas.
"It's positive to hear the new announcements today," she said.
Coffey said the union would also like to see the government do more to address recruitment, working conditions and other issues.
"There's no quick fix here," she said.