Barrette reverses decision to scrap health watchdog
With election looming, health minister tight-lipped on details of about-face
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.
Health Minister Gaétan Barrette fired the last commissioner of health and welfare following a scathing report in 2016.