Two of Newfoundland and Labrador’s top politicians were shuffled into new cabinet positions Wednesday morning.
Tom Osborne, the former lead for the Department of Education, will now take over as health minister, replacing John Haggie.
Haggie, a former surgeon who steered the province through the COVID-19 pandemic, is now the education minister.
Premier Andrew Furey congratulated Haggie as one of the longest-standing health ministers of all time. “And they have not been easy times,” he told reporters.
“There’s criticisms everywhere across the country right now, with closing emergency departments, stress and strain on nurses, on doctors. Doctor recruitment issues. It’s not unique to here.”
PC Leader David Brazil welcomed the shuffle, which he called long overdue.
“Unfortunately, the former minister was the only person that did not admit we’re in a health-care crisis and did not come up with a collaborative plan that would enhance the health-care worker, enhance the organizations that they represent, and more importantly would improve health-care and access to it, “Brazil told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
“This is a new, fresh start. We’re hoping it goes in the right direction.”
Brazil said he hopes Osborne brings a fresh perspective to the portfolio and works more closely with medical professionals – who he says had a sour working relationship with Haggie.
He believes Osborne’s first priority should be to review the Health Accord, a plan calling for dramatic changes to health-care spending over the next 10 years, to be more open and transparent, and to reach out to organizations and the public to hear what they have to say.
“Ask people for their input, ask them to be open about what are the best ways that provided health care could be done in areas here,” he said. “It’s a big task, but with the right attitude and the right approach… the solutions are there.”
NDP Leader Jim Dinn, in a statement Wednesday afternoon, questioned the shuffle’s timing.
“Will this cause delays in action while these ministers get up to speed on these new portfolios? Or will they not bother and start through with cuts to services that were planned all along? Their track record does not exactly inspire confidence,” the statement read.
Osborne, previously a finance minister for the Liberals, also served as health minister under Danny Williams’s Progressive Conservative government in the mid-2000s.
Osborne helmed the Health Department during a political scandal over how hundreds of breast cancer patients received flawed test results through the health authority now known as Eastern Health. He testified at an inquiry that he was not told about the error.
The inquiry, led by Justice Margaret Cameron, found top health authority officials withheld mistakes from the provincial government.
Cameron ruled “there was a failure of both accountability and oversight at all levels” in her March 2009 report.
Haggie tackled growing challenges
Haggie, meanwhile, has led the Health Department since the Liberals took power in 2015, most recently grappling with more than two years of COVID-19 regulations and a cyberattack on the health system last year.
The shuffle comes at a time of increased tension for the department, recently plagued by staffing shortages at its four health authorities, a lack of family doctors, and long wait times for mental health care.
On Wednesday, Haggie rattled off a list of achievements in his seven years as health minister, and said it was a “natural time” to change portfolios.
“Perfect time, perfect opportunity to look forward to something new, and I’m really excited about the prospects in education,” he said.
Despite his strong medical background, Haggie said he’s also dabbled in adult education, having taught medical students.
“I bring a different perspective,” Haggie said. “I feel like I have a passing acquaintance with it … I think I bring a critical mind and an analytical approach.”
The ministry as it stands is also groaning under the weight of health-care costs, which eat up approximately 40 per cent of the provincial budget.
Premier Andrew Furey pledged to revamp the system through the Health Accord NL
In its final report, released last month, the Health Accord team recommended that the department create one provincial ambulance system, merge its four health authorities and create a virtual emergency service over the next 10 years, among dozens of other suggestions.
Osborne will now take over those obstacles, noting to reporters on Wednesday that recruitment and retention, which the province has struggled with in recent years, is a global problem.
“One thing that motivates me is a challenge,” he said.
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