Fees for Alberta doctors may drop by $275 million

Health Minister Fred Horne has told the province's physicians that $275 million will have to be found in order to accommodate as many as 300 new doctors moving to Alberta
Health Minister Fred Horne is asking the Alberta Medical Association for ways to reduce compensation costs by $275 million to accomodate new doctors. (CBC)

Health Minister Fred Horne has told the province’s physicians that $275 million will have to be found in order to accommodate as many as 300 new doctors entering the Alberta health-care system.

The Alberta government set aside $3.4 billion for physician compensation in this year’s budget.

That amount will now have to be split among the 8,000 physicians currently practicing in Alberta and the new doctors.

In a letter sent to the Alberta Medical Association, Horne said he wanted ideas by the end of the week.

"There are a number of ways that can be done and that involves looking at how much we pay for specific services in the system, how we allocate funds.to make sure we have enough family doctors … as well as specialists," Horne said on Monday.

"So we haven't asked the AMA to make any cuts. What we've given them is an opportunity to be a partner in making decisions about how we manage the budget."

AMA president Dr. Michael Giuffre told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM that Horne hasn't provided doctors with any guidance about what could be cut.

"I think maybe the minister should ask patients what services they no longer want from physicians and we’ll do exactly what patients want," he said.

Changes to fees

Horne said on Tuesday that he wants to update the fee structure to reflect changes in technology. For example, he says that procedures that used to take two hours may now only take 15 minutes, and he wants fees to adjust that.

He also wants to look at different compensation models  — for example, moving family doctors away from fee for service.

Horne says that changes have to be made and he wants to make them in consultation with physicians.

"I’m really not interested in being the minister who has to make those decisions unilaterally," he said. "What I’m interested in is everybody stepping up to the plate and thinking this through."

Horne’s request is the latest move in the ongoing negotiations that have become bitter over the past four months, particularly since he imposed a settlement on doctors in November. That compensation plan was retracted and negotiations resumed.

In his March 18 president's letter, Giuffre asked for Premier Alison Redford to intervene in the ongoing dispute as she did with teachers last week — a measure that led to a tentative deal between the province and the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

He said doctors plan to fight back through a media campaign and by asking patients to contact their MLA. He also said AMA is looking at its legal options.

AMA and the province have been negotiating a new deal for doctors for almost two years.

Back in January, Redford suggested that how talks go with the physicians could affect whether the province brings back Alberta Health premiums after a four-year absence.

The premiums brought in $1 billion a year to provincial coffers before being cancelled by former premier Ed Stelmach in 2009, fulfilling an election promise he made a year earlier.