British Columbia

B.C. anesthesiologists may face legal action

B.C. health authorities are attempting to use legal action against anesthesiologists who are threatening to withdraw services in a contract dispute with provinces.
Health authorities are seeking an injunction to prevent job action by anesthesiologists 2:05

B.C. health authorities are attempting to use legal action against anesthesiologists who are threatening to withdraw services in a contract dispute with the province.

Lawyers for the health authorities have filed an application for an interim injunction to prevent any service withdrawal, and have also filed a civil claim that could be used against any doctor found in breach of their contract.

Interior Health CEO Robert Halpenny, speaking on behalf of all health authorities, says the anesthesiologists have created maximum confusion for patients, surgeons and other medical staff by threatening to withdraw services.

Thousands of patients across B.C. could have their elective surgery cancelled because of job action by some of the provinces' anesthesiologists. (CBC)

He says lawyers have sent the anesthesiologists a letter advising them they're bound by contracts they have signed to provide patient care.

Halpenny says health authorities will do whatever they can to maintain patient services, but they are also preparing for a withdrawal, sending letters to 3,237 patients warning that their surgeries might have to be rescheduled.

There will be no postonements for patients needing emergency or urgent surgery.

More than half of the 472 anesthesiologists in B.C. indicated they could withdraw service from elective surgeries the first week of April, as their labour dispute with the province escalates.

Fraser Health says so far no surgeries have been cancelled next week, but it's unclear what will actually happen Monday morning.

Emergency surgeries not affected

The withdrawal could mean a slowdown in treatment and elective surgeries, but emergency and urgent surgeries will not be cancelled according to health officials.

"As in any job action, the decision to postpone surgery will be made on a patient-by-patient basis with your surgeon. During this difficult time we will treat patients in priority according to their medical condition," said the letter sent to patients.

The dispute affects hospitals in the Vancouver Island, Fraser and Coastal health regions, but surgeries at Vancouver General, UBC, B.C. Women's and B.C. Children's hospitals and those in the Northern Health region are not affected by the job action.

Dr. Jeff Rains, the president of the B.C. Anesthesiologist Society, says it warned the province three months ago that staffing between April 2 and 5 will be comparable to levels over Christmas and Spring Break, unless the dispute was settled.

But Rains says the society it isn't backing down despite the legal threat and it will be the health authorities' fault if surgeries are cancelled next week.

"They never should have been booked in the first place. They should have been delayed for a couple of weeks and their schedules wouldn't have been interrupted," he said.

Health Minister Mike De Jong says postponing surgeries will impact patients.

"It's not just about showing up for surgery. You have to generally fast for 24 hours. You go off medication. You know people need to know and that's why I say this is not in anything approaching professional behaviour," he said.  

De Jong says the heath authorities are developing contingency plans, which include "moving patients, if it becomes necessary, outside of the jurisdiction to Washington state or Alberta if that becomes necessary."

Bargaining rights a centre of dispute

A large part of the labour dispute revolves around the bargaining mechanism between doctors and the Health Ministry.

The B.C. Medical Association is the sole bargainer for the province's 11,000 doctors, but the anesthesiologists’ society wants to negotiate its own issues at the bargaining table.

Rains said the medical association has stopped representing them and other doctors during contract negotiations, and he said it's frustrating his group isn't being heard.

The group's concerns include recruiting and retaining doctors, cutting waiting lists, patient safety and efficiencies in the system. The society says it represents about 400 anesthesiologists.

But the health minister has said that he believes the problem is much narrower.

"Let's not kid ourselves, this is a dispute about money, and a group — not all, but a group — of anesthetists who want to hold patients hostage to secure more money for themselves," said de Jong earlier this month.

Over the past decade, de Jong said anesthesiologists have received a 33 per cent wage increase compared to a 22 per cent pay hike for general practitioners. They make about $350,000 a year with little overhead, he said.


With files from The Canadian Press