Health Minister Bruce Fitch says the province could revisit its decision not to cover the cost of the new RSV vaccine for seniors.
He was responding to criticism from Liberal Leader Susan Holt, who argues the province should fund the vaccine to keep seniors healthy, to ease the burden on hospitals and to save the health-care system money.
Holt raised the issue during question period Tuesday, following a CBC report.
"The best way to reduce the strain on our hospitals and ERs is to prevent people from showing up there in the first place," she said.
Yet residents in her riding of Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore, like senior Pat Flanagan of east Bathurst, who's on a fixed pension, she said, face a cost of nearly $300 for the vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
This, despite the fact that RSV is "one of the main causes" why people end up in the hospital at this time of year, according to Holt.
Holt estimates $1.2M spent on RSV hospital costs
The common respiratory virus causes a mild cold-like illness for most people but the Public Health Agency of Canada says it can be severe for people aged 65 and older, infants and people who are immunocompromised. It can result in hospitalization and even death.
Last fall and winter, New Brunswick recorded more than 1,500 RSV cases — the highest number in at least a decade.
Liberal Leader Susan Holt argued in the legislature Tuesday that the best form of health care is preventative. (Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick)
Holt suggested the associated hospital costs amounted to more than $1.2 million. "We could provide vaccines to 4,000 seniors with that money instead of putting that burden on our nurses and doctors," she said.
Asked later by CBC how she arrived at that figure, since the province has no data on how many of those 1,500 people were hospitalized or for how long, she said it was a "just a generalization" based on one day of hospitalization each at a cost of roughly $800 per day.
"We can all agree that it costs New Brunswick more to provide care to a patient in the hospital for a day than the cost of this vaccine," Holt told the legislature.
"So I'm hoping [Fitch] would describe for me why they have considered and decided not to fund this vaccine for seniors who are struggling with affordability and interested in protecting their health."
Seeking advice of experts
Fitch said the government is aware of the impact RSV had on the province last year and of Health Canada's decision in August to approve Arexvy — the first RSV vaccine for people aged 60 and older.
"We don't need to take any lessons from the Opposition, but we also want to take the advice from the experts."
He noted the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, known as NACI, has not yet issued its recommendations for the RSV vaccine.
"So the last chapter hasn't [been] written," he said.
Fitch expects the advisory committee's recommendations "in the not too distant future."
"We will take that, plus the advice of our chief medical officer, the staff at Public Health, the [regional health authorities], the doctors involved in triage and health care," he said.
"We will look to the medical practitioners to make this decision and help us make this decision," people who have had years of medical training and experience.
In the meantime, the province does encourage seniors to get the RSV vaccine, along with their COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot, said Fitch.
He noted the province spends more than $20 million in various immunizations to protect New Brunswickers.
As it stands, most provinces are not covering the cost of the RSV vaccine, although Ontario is providing it free-of-charge in living settings such as long-term care homes.