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Doctors not leaving province, Premier Jason Kenney insists, despite contrary claims in legal case

Premier Jason Kenney sparred with NDP health critic David Shepherd in the legislature Thursday over seemingly contradictory statements by the UCP government about the exodus of doctors from the province.

NDP calls out alleged contradictions about doctor exodus due to pay dispute 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney dismissed a call to fire his health minister over the handling of physicians in the province, saying Tyler Shandro has done a good job to prevent "completely out of control (physician) costs." (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Premier Jason Kenney sparred with NDP health critic David Shepherd in the legislature Thursday over seemingly contradictory statements by the UCP government about the exodus of doctors from the province.

Shepherd asked Kenney questions about a letter that Health Minister Tyler Shandro wrote to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the contents of which were first reported by CBC News on Wednesday. 

In the letter, Shandro directed the CPSA to change its standards of practice for physicians to stop the province's doctors from leaving their practices en masse, or withdrawing services, due to an ongoing dispute over pay, and what doctors contend is an ongoing smear campaign.

"Patients in these communities," Shandro wrote, referring to rural communities, "should not have to face an entire group of physicians withdrawing services."

In February, Shandro unilaterally ended the Alberta government's master agreement with the AMA and imposed a new funding framework. 

The Alberta Medical Association, which represents the province's doctors, filed a lawsuit against the government in April, alleging Shandro's actions breached their charter rights because they were denied arbitration. 

In its statement of defence, the government said doctors had engaged in "job action" by "withdrawing services or threatening to withdraw services in their communities."

The statement of defence lists 10 communities and a total of 54 doctors who had allegedly engaged in the "job action."

NDP alleges contradictory statements

Shepherd on Thursday seized on this seeming contradiction. He pointed out that the government last week insisted doctors aren't leaving, but he said the government in legal documents claimed job action by 54 doctors in 10 communities.

"Now both those statements can't be true," Shepherd said. "So is the government lying to the assembly or lying to the courts?"

Kenney said neither statement was a lie.

"Based on information from the College of Physicians and Surgeons and Alberta Health Services," Kenney said, "we know of only one physician who is planning on leaving the province in July and who submitted the formal paperwork that is required to do so."

The CPSA told CBC News that physicians are not required to notify the regulator when they leave their practice or why, and it is typically not until year-end that it can determine how many doctors have left since their registration renewal deadline is Dec. 31.

The CPSA said that since Jan. 1, 55 doctors have not renewed their licences, 32 have retired and 12 were voluntarily taken off the registry. 

But the CPSA also said there is no indication large numbers of doctors are leaving.

In his follow-up question, Shepherd quoted from Shandro's letter about prohibiting entire groups of doctors from leaving.

"The exodus is real," Shepherd said, "and the minister [Shandro] is making a desperate bid to try to force a medical regulator to clean up his political mess."

Kenney dismisses call to fire minister

Kenney dismissed Shepherd's subsequent call to fire Shandro and said the minister had done a good job to prevent "completely out of control [physician] costs.

"If we did not take measures now, we would project a $2-billion increase, a 40-per-cent increase, in the cost of physician compensation for [doctors] who are already the best-compensated physicians in Canada," Kenney said.

Late Wednesday, Shandro through his press secretaries, appeared to walk back his blunt directive to the CPSA to change doctors' practice standards or he would impose them. 

On social media, his press secretary Steve Buick said Shandro had simply "asked" the CPSA for recommendations. And Buick, in a statement to CBC News, said the minister had no issue with the CPSA not meeting Shandro's July 20 deadline for providing input on the changes he had directed.

At a special meeting Wednesday, the CPSA said it was obliged under the Health Professions Act to consult with doctors before it made any changes to standards of practice. 

It said it would need at least a month, and likely longer, to consult doctors and other jurisdictions before making recommendations to the minister.

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