Ending 'good faith billing' could hurt homeless without health cards, NDP says

The Alberta government is proposing doctors stop billing for patients who don’t have valid Alberta health cards, a proposal that could affect homeless people who don’t carry identification. 

Proposal is part of Alberta government's negotiations with Alberta Medical Association

Health Minister Tyler Shandro answered party members' questions about abortion and conscience rights at the UCP AGM in Calgary last weekend. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The Alberta government is proposing doctors stop billing for patients who don't have valid Alberta health cards, a proposal that could affect homeless people who don't carry identification. 

The practice, called "good-faith billing," allows physicians to bill when they have a reasonable belief that the patient is an Alberta resident. 

A internal document provided to the media by the NDP Official Opposition suggests Alberta Health is proposing to end good-faith billing on Jan. 1 "to reduce incidence of non-collectable billing claims and shift the responsibility for accurate registration verification and billing procedures to Alberta Health Services and physicians." 

The item is one of a number of proposals included in negotiations between the government and the Alberta Medical Association. The document said British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec don't have good-faith policies. 

NDP health critic David Shepherd, who represents Edmonton Centre, said the proposal will affect homeless people who live in his riding. 

"If they go to see a doctor right now, if that doctor reasonably believes them to be an Alberta resident, they can receive care," Shepherd said at a news conference Tuesday.

"Under this proposal, these physicians will not be paid for providing care to that individual."

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said he was unaware of the proposal when he was asked about it by reporters prior to Tuesday's question period. His staff promised to follow up later. It isn't known how much the change would save the government. 

Other proposals provided to the AMA include making seniors over the age of 74 pay for the mandatory tests required to keep driving.   

Dr. Bailey Adams, a family physician from St. Albert, said the government is trying to reduce fees paid to doctors each year by $262 million. She said payments to family doctors make up $224 million of that amount. 

"Family doctors end up taking 85 per cent of this hit," she said. "This government will be cutting fees directed to your family medicine care and preventative care."

She said the reduction will make it impossible for family physicians to run practices and pay their staff unless they limit the time they spend with patients.

Adams predicted physicians will burn out, leave the profession or move to another province.

Last week, the United Nurses of Alberta, Health Sciences Association of Alberta and Alberta Union of Provincial Employees shared letters they received from the government and Alberta Health Services outlining the potential loss of 8,000 health-care positions, including nurses, lab technicians and EMTs.

In question period, Shandro denied the government was cutting funding. Instead, he said, dollars will be allocated to areas where they can have the biggest impact on patient care.