N.B. premier cancels controversial plan to close rural ERs overnight

New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs has announced he's backing away from the controversial plan to close six emergency departments between midnight and 8 a.m. in a month's time. 

Higgs issued a news release shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday. He said hours will not be reduced at the hospitals in Sussex, Sackville, Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet, Grand Falls and Perth-Andover. 

"We have experienced a multitude of reactions and genuine concerns to the regional health authorities' reform plan," he said in the statement.

"I can't in good conscience move forward without addressing the concerns and fears that have been brought to light."

Higgs released a statement Sunday evening following days of criticism about the proposed health-care reforms. (CBC News)

The Progressive Conservative minority government announced the contentious health-care reforms on Tuesday, sparking angry protests, political divide and talk of an early provincial election.

The changes were scheduled to go into effect March 11. Now Higgs said there will be further consultations in April and May. 

"I will personally visit these communities to initiate the process to ensure that we hear from community leaders, the people delivering care and concerned citizens," his statement said. 

There will be a "health-care summit" in June to discuss a long-term strategy for the system and the challenges in rural communities, Higgs went on to say. He committed to releasing the findings of both the summit and the community meetings sometime this fall. 

The province had also been proposing to convert acute-care beds to long-term care beds in response to a shortage of staff and beds.The rationale was that cutting overnight ER hours at the six hospitals would free up more doctors to work during the day, when demand for service is higher.  

Opposition to the proposed health reforms was swift. 

Hundreds of protesters stood outside the hospital emergency room in Sussex on Tuesday, ringing bells, waving bright orange signs and chanting "rural lives matter." A similar angry crowd gathered in Caraquet as the changes were announced.

On Friday, MLA Robert Gauvin resigned as deputy premier and said he would sit as an independent MLA, calling the changes an "attack on rural New Brunswick."