06/05/2013 12:59 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick premier faces protesters upset with cuts in health care system

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick Premier David Alward defended his government's cuts to health care as he waded into a large and noisy group of health-care workers who gathered Wednesday outside the legislature, protesting decisions they say will erode public services.

"When you're cutting frontline workers, you're cutting services," said Kevin Driscoll, a nursing unit clerk at the Miramichi Regional Hospital, as he stood toe-to-toe with Alward.

"They're telling us they're going to cut more jobs," he continued. "That's more services and the public is going to suffer from that."

The government announced in April that almost 400 jobs would be eliminated from the health-care sector. At the time, it said the changes are needed to rein in spending so that per capita health costs are closer to the national average of about $4,000, about $325 less than what New Brunswick spends.

Alward told the protesters the cuts are necessary because he has a duty to ensure the health-care system is sustainable, adding that the government has focused its cuts on senior positions in an effort to protect patient care.

"What I need to do as a premier is make sure that when someone needs primary health care, whether that be in Saint John or in the furthest reaches of our province, they're going to have access," Alward said.

But Norma Robinson, president of the New Brunswick Council of Hospital Unions, said there are concerns that the cuts will have a serious impact, especially for seniors in rural areas.

"What's it going to take for this province to realize?" she said. "Is it going to take someone dying? Because if we continue to erode the health care system in this province any further, I believe we are going to see things happen that will be fatal."

Robinson said the council will continue protesting the government in the future in an effort to express their concerns.