Edmonton

Alberta doctors call proposed new pay plan cynical and heavy-handed

Alberta's doctors say proposed changes to their pay and practice rules are cynical and heavy-handed and will make future physicians think twice about working in the province.

Bill violates 'the sanctity of contracts,' allowing government to unilaterally cancel them

Finance Minister Travis Toews, left, delivers the provincial budget on Oct. 24 as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney looks on. Alberta's doctors say proposed changes to their pay and practice rules are cynical and heavy-handed and will make future physicians think twice about working in the province. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta's doctors say proposed changes to their pay and practice rules are cynical and heavy-handed and will make future physicians think twice about working in the province.

Dr. Christine Molnar, the head of the Alberta Medical Association, says a bill now before the legislature would allow the government to unilaterally rip up the current master pay deal — and any future pay deals — it reaches with doctors.

"Government is cynically asking us to work toward agreements when it appears we are the only party to be bound by them," Molnar wrote Wednesday in an open letter to members.

"This bill effectively gives government the power of pre-approval to cancel any physician services agreement without recourse. This is a violation of the sanctity of contracts."

Molnar said the bill also moves decision making to cabinet, behind closed doors, apparently in the name of the public good.

"What is the value of an agreement when it can be revoked at any time with no public discussion?"

Molnar said the AMA is getting a legal opinion on the proposed changes and is seeking a meeting with government.

Cancel agreement if sides don't agree

Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative government was expected to respond later Wednesday.

On Monday, Finance Minister Travis Toews introduced legislation as part of his budget that would allow the government to cancel its master agreement with doctors if the two sides can't negotiate a new deal.

The province is working off a recent report from a panel headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon.

It stated that Alberta public-sector workers, including doctors, are paid at much higher levels than comparable provinces and that savings must be found immediately to end the run of multibillion-dollar budget deficits and resulting debt spiral.

Dr. Christine P. Molnar, diagnostic radiologist and nuclear medicine specialist, is part of a team that's been working to get a cyclotron built in Calgary for years. She says radiopharmaceuticals needed for cancer scans are shipped to Calgary from Edmonton daily. (Submitted)

The report said physician costs last year were more than $5 billion — about 25 per cent of the health budget — and have grown 300 per cent in the last two decades versus 200 per cent in other provinces.

It said the main obstacle in getting physician costs down is the master agreement that is difficult to amend.

Toews' bill also proposes giving the government the power to tie any new doctor's billing privileges to where he or she works in order to get more physicians to practise in under-serviced rural areas.

This change would apply only to doctors who begin work after March 2022.

Molnar, in the letter, said such a plan has already failed in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

"It is flawed because it restricts the number of physicians practising, restricts the mobility of physicians and impedes recruitment," she said.

Deter doctors from coming to Alberta

"I would like all of us to think about the environment that will be created. Will our future physicians, our young colleagues, want to practise in Alberta?"

Molnar said the AMA agrees with the government that there are many opportunities to improve the health system and for fiscal sustainability. But she notes the association has helped the government in recent years reduce planned expenditures by $500 million.

NDP health critic David Shepherd said when you create unrest among doctors, there's only one group of people that suffers — patients.

"Kenney needs to listen to the physicians who care for our loved ones, especially in rural communities where recruitment can be challenging, and scrap Bill 21," he said.

The province is also targeting wages in the broader public sector.

On Tuesday, Toews announced the government is seeking rollbacks in upcoming binding wage arbitration sessions with more than 180,000 public sector workers, including social workers, nurses, teachers and justice staff.