Doctors claim victory in billing dispute, Flemming disagrees

The province's doctors are declaring victory in their legal dispute with the Alward government over billing fees, but the health minister says nothing has changed.

Justice Judy Clendening ruled fee agreement binding, but did not address medicare cap

The province's doctors are declaring victory in their legal dispute with the Alward government over billing fees, but the Health minister says nothing has changed.

A Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled on Thursday that the New Brunswick Medical Society's 2009 agreement with the provincial government remains in effect and binding until 2014.

But Justice Judy Clendening did not address the contentious medicare cap issue.

Anthony Knight, the chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Medical Society, says the ruling means the province can't cut and cap the medicare budget.

"The nature of the application before me is a request for a declaratory order," on whether the existing fee agreement is binding, Clendening stated in her written decision.

"Consequently, the issue of a cap being imposed is not at issue in this application."

Still, the medical society got what it wanted, according to CEO Anthony Knight.

"It is legally binding.That is the question we asked and we are victorious," he told CBC News.

Knight contends the decision means the government cannot reduce the medicare budget by $20 million and cap it for two years, as announced in March.

If the government does reduce the budget, that will eventually translate into less money than what doctors have agreed to, he said.

Minister open to talks

Health Minister Ted Flemming said he hasn't had to use the cap yet, but declined to say whether he wll use it later in the year. (CBC)

Health Minister Ted Flemming has a different interpretation of  the ruling, however.

Clendening's decision explicitly avoids the medicare cap issue, which Flemming says means the cut and cap remain in place.

"I don't consider that my position has changed one bit as a result of this decision," Flemming told reporters.

"We're basically exactly where we were back in March and my door's open. I urge the medical society to come and help me with this problem."

Flemming said the cap will be on the table if the medical society negotiates on ways to get the health budget down.

He hasn't had to use the cap yet this quarter because doctors' billings have been "surprisingly" below forecast, he said.

The minister declined to say if he would use the cap later in the year. "I don't answer hypothetical questions," he said.

"It's a budget question and I'll decide that when the time comes."

Doctors considering next steps

Dr. Robert Desjardins, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, says doctors are considering their next steps. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Medical society president Dr. Robert Desjardins said the group, which represents 1,600 doctors across the province, was actively trying to reach a settlement as recently as Friday.

"To avoid court, we said we'd drop the lawsuit if the Alward government would sign a court order acknowledging our agreement is binding," he said in a statement. "They had no interest in signing such an order."

The group feels vindicated by the judge's ruling.

"In less than 24 hours, she came to the conclusion that was evident: the agreement between the province and medical society is binding and must be respected," he said.

"She also awarded the medical society costs. This is all we were seeking in court."

Doctors are now considering their next steps, said Desjardins.

"It is not lost on us that we had to go to court to get our agreement respected — and it took a judge less than a day to agree with us," he said.

"We hope this puts an end to the Alward government's misguided approach to dealing with the medical profession."

The judge expressed confusion over why the matter ended up in court, noting the provincial government did not dispute the fee agreement is binding and enforceable during Wednesday's hearing.

"Consequently, it was challenging for me to determine why the respondent did not agree to this prior to a court appearance," Clendening said, awarding the medical society $2,500 in costs.

In the March budget, the provincial government announced funding for doctors, who bill medicare for each service, would be cut by $18.8 million and capped at $425 million for two years.

Rick Williams, a government lawyer, had argued in court Wednesday the government has the power to set the overall medicare budget.

Williams noted the cap may never take effect if doctors don't bill up to that amount.