The CEO of Vitalité Health Network has announced he will retire this fall, just months after calls for his resignation over a plan for the nighttime closure of emergency departments in several small hospitals.
The reforms, cancelled by the Higgs government just five days after they were announced in February, prompted several municipal councils in northeast New Brunswick to demand Gilles Lanteigne be removed as CEO.
Premier Blaine Higgs also suggested at the time he cancelled the plan that the health authorities weren’t completely prepared to implement the changes, a criticism Lanteigne rejected.
Board chair Michelyne Paulin said in a press release that Lanteigne’s five-year contract as CEO was up to expire on Aug. 10 and he decided not to seek another term.
Lanteigne will stay on until October to let the board have more time to recruit a replacement.
He said in an interview that his decision to leave this year had nothing to do with the recent controversy.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
“I truly am and continue to be very passionate about my work but at some point in life you have to move on.”
Lanteigne said he still believes in the need for the cancelled reforms, which would have affected Vitalité hospitals in Caraquet, Grand Falls and Ste-Anne-de-Kent as well as three Horizon network hospitals.
“Overall I think the plan was very good and the components that were in there are still very valid,” he said.
There were a number of personal attacks … as opposed to ideas. But we’re still in need of a transformation. – Gilles Lanteigne, Vitalité Health Network.
Higgs cancelled the initiative five days after it was announced. He promised opposition MLAs ahead of a budget vote on March 13 that the emergency departments at the six hospitals would remain open.
Higgs said Wednesday he was surprised by Lanteigne’s decision when he learned of it a day earlier.
“I got to know Mr. Lanteigne a little bit over the last year and certainly recognized the devotion he had to the Vitalité health system and our health system as a whole,” he said.
Health reform resignation
In February, Vitalité board member Norma McGraw resigned, claiming that details of the controversial emergency-room plan had not been given to the board and put to a proper vote.
That contradicted what Lanteigne told the legislature’s Crown corporations committee a few days before, when he said there had been a vote on a resolution endorsing the changes.
It was not Lanteigne’s first time at the centre of controversy. Last year, he was forced to respond to a damning report by the New Brunswick ombud about mistreatment and inadequate care at the Restigouche Hospital Centre in Campbellton.
And in 2017 he publicly lobbied against a plan by the Liberal government of Brian Gallant to outsource management of the extramural care program to Medavie Blue Cross.
‘Personal attacks’ and a need for ‘transformation’
Lanteigne said Wednesday that health reforms are never easy and it takes several factors to line up at once for them to be possible. He said the fact the Higgs government doesn’t have a majority in the legislature made the February reforms difficult to implement.
But he said the only real opposition to the changes came from the communities where the emergency departments were located.
“The concepts and the ideas were never debated,” he said. “There were a number of personal attacks … as opposed to ideas. But we’re still in need of a transformation.”
And he said nothing about the current COVID-19 pandemic had persuaded him to take a different view. “Quite the contrary,” he said, arguing that Vitalité’s shift from a four-zone approach to an integrated network-wide team plan helped the system respond better.
He said the creation of a new online portal for patients to check their coronavirus test results was an example of how the system has become “very, very agile.”
“I’m seeing things that can be done when there is a crisis that we don’t seem to be able to do in normal times,” he said. “It reinforces that the orientation we had was the right one.”