Nearly 350 doctors urge Alberta to postpone health care changes amidst COVID-19 outbreak

Hundreds of Alberta doctors are calling on the provincial government to pause or rescind planned sweeping changes to doctors' compensation in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in the province.

Letter acquired the signatures from physicians in 24-hour period

Alberta physician Marsha Quartero wrote a letter addressed to Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro urging the government to suspend planned changes amidst the coronavirus outbreak. (Marsha Quartero)

Hundreds of Alberta doctors are calling on the provincial government to pause or rescind planned sweeping changes to doctors' compensation in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in the province.

"This is ridiculous and must stop. We are about to face the worst pandemic Alberta has likely ever seen. We cannot deal with two major upheavals in our health care system simultaneously," reads the letter addressed to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro. "The anxiety and uncertainty in the medical profession right now is completely unprecedented and we are already burning out under the strain."

Contract discussions between Alberta doctors and the provincial government broke down last month, though a working group was established to help resume talks between the two parties last Saturday.

The changes, which include controversial modifications to how much family doctors get paid for longer appointments, have already prompted hundreds of doctors to raise the alarm about the pending changes — but that was prior to COVID-19's arrival in Alberta.

"You must rescind or postpone the implementation of the 11 consultation proposals on March 31," the letter reads. "Let us care for Albertans when they need us most without having the stress of how we can possibly manage our businesses right now."

The letter, which was written by Dr. Marsha Quartero, had obtained 345 signatures from Alberta doctors in a 24-hour period. 

Alberta has 29 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Saturday morning, all related to travel, according to Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

Government says it will provide necessary resources

Steve Buick, the health minister's press secretary, wrote in an email that the Alberta government would provide whatever resources are necessary to fight back against COVID-19.

"In recognition of the essential role of physicians, Minister Shandro recently approved reactivating a 'pandemic' fee code that allows physicians to bill for phone calls to patients who have or may have COVID-19," Buick said, adding that the code will also apply to those in isolation.

The government has announced specific decisions to control costs, Buick said.

"Those decisions have nothing to do with COVID-19 and are not intended to change the availability of physicians or their ability to treat patients," he said.

Calgary rheumatologist Michelle Jung, one of the doctors who signed the letter, said Alberta physicians were feeling "very demoralized and undervalued" amidst the outbreak.

"My colleagues are putting their lives at risk to fight this pandemic," she said. "[Some doctors] are going to be exposed to this virus, quite likely … So there is a lot of uncertainty and quite frankly a lot of concern and fear among my medical colleagues."

The Alberta government has already announced plans to pause cuts on the number of front-line health-care workers in the province.

On Friday, Shandro said the province would likely need more health care workers to cope with COVID-19, saying Alberta Health Services would not lay off any employees during the outbreak.

AHS notices previously said thousands of front-line positions, including 500 nurses, would be eliminated in the next three years.


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