Bar­rette re­verses de­ci­sion to scrap health watch­dog

With elec­tion loom­ing, health min­is­ter tight-lipped on de­tails of about-face

Montreal Gazette - - CITY - AARON DERFEL ader­fel@post­media.com twit­ter.com/Aaron_Der­fel

De­spite promis­ing to re­store the po­si­tion of a gov­ern­ment watch­dog on health care, Que­bec Health Min­is­ter Gaé­tan Bar­rette of­fered few de­tails on Thurs­day on when he will ap­point the in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sioner or the bud­get that will be set aside for such work.

In what ap­peared to be an about­face less than four-and-a-half months be­fore the Oct. 1 pro­vin­cial elec­tion, Bar­rette said he was plan­ning to re­in­state the com­mis­sioner of health and wel­fare af­ter he abol­ished the po­si­tion two years ago fol­low­ing highly crit­i­cal re­ports by the last com­mis­sioner on Que­bec’s health-care sys­tem.

Bar­rette in­sisted to re­porters in Que­bec City that it was never his de­ci­sion to elim­i­nate the po­si­tion.

“That de­ci­sion was sort of im­posed by the cir­cum­stances,” he said. “I have never been in favour of it.”

Bar­rette added that since the gov­ern­ment’s fi­nances to­day are in much bet­ter shape, it’s now pos­si­ble to re­store the po­si­tion.

On Wed­nes­day night, Diane La­marre, health critic for the op­po­si­tion Parti Québé­cois, took to Twit­ter to take credit for the gov­ern­ment’s re­ver­sal.

“Suc­cess­ful bar­gain­ing by the PQ al­lowed for the can­cel­la­tion of the abo­li­tion,” La­marre tweeted, with­out elab­o­rat­ing.

La­marre pledged that should the PQ win the next elec­tion, the gov­ern­ment would fully re­store the com­mis­sioner’s man­date and bud­get.

Bar­rette re­sponded to La­marre’s tweet al­most im­me­di­ately, sug­gest­ing that he should de­serve credit for the re­ver­sal.

“I made rep­re­sen­ta­tions to the gov­ern­ment,” he de­clared in a tweet.

Cather­ine W. Audet, Bar­rette’s press at­taché, de­clined to say when a com­mis­sioner would be ap­pointed or the bud­get and staff that he or she will over­see.

“Those de­tails will come at the (right) time and place,” she said.

Robert Salois, the last com­mis­sioner, was abruptly dis­missed in March 2016 fol­low­ing scathing re­ports he wrote about Bar­rette’s han­dling of pri­mary care as well as the fi­nanc­ing and pay­ment of doc­tors. Salois was work­ing at the time on an ex­haus­tive study of Que­bec’s ERs, which he made pub­lic less than two months later, con­clud­ing that the prov­ince has the long­est emer­gency wait times in Canada and among the worst in the Western world.

“Are we be­ing pun­ished be­cause we tackled top­ics that were too touchy?” Salois asked rhetor­i­cally in an in­ter­view with the CBC af­ter his po­si­tion was cut.

Pa­tient-rights ad­vo­cate Paul Brunet de­scribed Bar­rette’s re­ver­sal as an act of des­per­a­tion by the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment.

“If we push them a lit­tle farther, they might even prom­ise to abol­ish Bill 10 and Bill 20,” Brunet said, re­fer­ring to Bar­rette’s cost-cut­ting health re­forms.

Mean­while, a pen­sion­ers’ group urged the gov­ern­ment to boost the new com­mis­sioner’s an­nual bud­get from $2.7 mil­lion to $3.5 mil­lion.

“We be­lieve firmly that the role of (the com­mis­sioner) is es­sen­tial,” said Don­ald Trem­blay, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion québé­coise des re­traité(e)s des secteurs pub­lic et para­pub­lic.

“It is ur­gent that the po­si­tion be re­in­stated, and we salute the gov­ern­ment’s will­ing­ness to do so.”

Dr. Estelle Ouel­let, sec­re­tary­trea­surer of Médecins québé­cois pour le régime pub­lic, said a health-care watch­dog is fun­da­men­tal to Que­bec so­ci­ety be­cause the com­mis­sioner en­sures that the gov­ern­ment ul­ti­mately makes the right de­ci­sions on the health sys­tem.

Premier Philippe Couil­lard, when he was serv­ing as health min­is­ter in a pre­vi­ous Lib­eral gov­ern­ment, cre­ated the po­si­tion in 2005.

PETER McCABE/FILES

Health Min­is­ter Gaé­tan Bar­rette fired the last com­mis­sioner of health and wel­fare fol­low­ing a scathing re­port in 2016.

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