FREDERICTON -- The New Brunswick Medical Society is calling on political parties to make health care the top priority of the provincial election campaign.

President Dr. Chris Goodyear said Tuesday that COVID-19 has highlighted the need for more spending in the health-care network.

"We're advocating for a different approach, but that's going to entail higher spending," he said in an interview. "We are in the middle of a global pandemic and that has shed a lot of light on the cracks in our health-care system."

For too long, New Brunswick's health system has remained stagnant and now is the time for tangible change to improve access to care, he said.

"Our approach is to work with the next government ... and sit down and discuss what health care is going to look like in the province of New Brunswick for the next 10 to 20 years," Goodyear said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that government and health-care professionals can work together to respond to the needs of the public when faced with unprecedented challenges, he said.

Goodyear said New Brunswick's health system is suffering from a shortage of professionals and hospital beds, and has some of the longest wait times for surgery in the country.

More than 30,000 New Brunswickers are without a family doctor, he said. The province needs a centralized system that a health professional interested in working in New Brunswick can call to get all their questions answered, he added.

Goodyear said the medical society isn't taking sides in this election.

"We want to sit down with the next government of the province, along with other health-care professionals and really look at what the needs of New Brunswickers are going forward," he said.

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said Tuesday if his party is elected, he'll prevent health authorities from closing rural hospitals and rural emergency rooms.

"Our health-care system should make New Brunswickers feel more safe, not less safe," Vickers said outside the Sussex Health Centre, during a campaign stop in Sussex.

If the Progressive Conservatives under leader Blaine Higgs are re-elected, he warned, they'll bring back a plan to cut services.

"It won't just be emergency rooms," Vickers said. "It will be other cuts as well. Let's not forget that emergency rooms were just part of phase one of Higgs' plan to cut health care. There was a phase two he never revealed to New Brunswickers."

Former Tory deputy premier Robert Gauvin left the party in February to sit as an Independent in protest over health-care reforms that would have seen the nighttime closure of emergency rooms at some rural hospitals.

Higgs' government later scrapped the idea because of public backlash and gaps identified in the plan.

Gauvin, who is now running for the Liberals, said Tuesday he believes Higgs still wants to make the cuts. "He wanted this, and now he wants a majority," Gauvin said.

But Higgs has repeatedly said in recent weeks he won't cut emergency room services.

"There will be no closures of ERs in these hospitals," Higgs said Tuesday in Moncton. "We are looking at how we manage our health-care system, but there will be no closures of ERs."

"We will work with every community to understand how we can best utilize the hospitals that exist to deliver health care anywhere in this province," he said.

If re-elected, Higgs continued, his government would advance its 10-year housing plan and get more people off the waiting list for subsidized housing. He said his 2020 budget provided a $5.4-million increase to social assistance rates.

"Over the life of the agreement, we've set a target of eliminating 1,200 households from the waiting list for subsidized housing," Higgs told reporters. "By 2022, 151 new subsidized housing units will be created."

Meanwhile, the People's Alliance used its daily news conference to call for more support for people battling drug addictions.

"We know that helping people to overcome drug addiction is the key to a healthier individual, which benefits the entire community," candidate Michelle Conroy said in Miramichi.

"We need to help those who are drug-addicted so we can contain the crime happening in our area," she said.

Green Leader David Coon said Tuesday a Green government would ensure people living with disabilities are fully included in New Brunswick society.

"While we have successfully included children with disabilities into our school system, we fail to include people with disabilities in our broader society," he said.

A Green government would introduce a number of initiatives to help disabled people, he promised, such tabling a New Brunswick accessibility act.

The provincial election is set for Sept. 14.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2020.