Family doctor calls for suspension of changes to seniors' driver medical coverage during COVID-19

An Alberta family doctor says his elderly patients are still coming in for driver medical exams ahead of an April 1 change that will require them to pay for the assessment privately.

AHS says it hasn't heard widespread reports of the issue

Seniors are required to get health exams before they can renew their driver's licences.

An Alberta family doctor says his elderly patients are still coming in for driver medical exams ahead of an April 1 change that will require them to pay for the assessment privately.

Edmonton family physician Dr. Haitham Kharrat wants the province to suspend a planned change he said has encouraged seniors to keep coming in for assessments before changes to the Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan come into effect next month. 

An Alberta Health Services spokesperson said Tuesday the health authority has not heard widespread reports of the issue flagged by Kharrat, but said they can't speak to what individual health-care providers are seeing. 

Edmonton family physician Dr. Haitham Kharrat is calling on the province to suspend a plan to begin charging seniors 75 years and older for drivers' medical assessments on April 1. ( Dr. Haitham Kharrat )
Under Alberta Transportation guidelines, drivers must pass a medical exam to keep their licences at age 75, age 80, and every two years after that.

Those evaluations test vision, hearing, cognitive ability and overall health of these individuals. 

Currently, doctors in Alberta are allowed to bill the government for those exams, but that will stop as part of a series of changes to the ways physicians schedule, bill, and interact with their patients. The base cost for the exam is $85.

Kharrat said the out-of-pocket expense for seniors who are 75 or older has prompted some to continue to seek out assessments, despite current public health guidelines to stay home and practice social distancing.

"To me it just seems ludicrous that we are moving forward with this when these are our most vulnerable patients that we need to keep at home and safe," Kharrat said in an interview. "I think this should be put on hold really, just to protect these patients and keep them in the house and allow them to cancel these appointments."

He said his clinic has been telling patients to stay home, but that seniors on fixed income still prefer to be seen now in order to be able to save the money. 

But a spokesperson for Alberta's minister of health said no other province in Canada pays for drivers medical exams for people who are 75 or older.

"We do not believe seniors are being put at risk; we have not seen any large increase in billing for driver medicals that shows a rush to get them done before the coverage change takes effect at the end of the month," said spokesperson Steve Buick.

He said the province has made other changes to support patients and doctors through the pandemic, including cancelling proposed changes to complex modifiers that were supposed  to take effect April 1, and temporarily paying family doctors and specialists the same fees for phone and online appointments as it does for in-person visits.

Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, said that just because other provinces don't cover the cost of drivers' medicals, doesn't mean Alberta should take away a benefit that helps seniors maintain independence.

"Adding this extra cost to people that don't have any extra income coming in is unfair," she said. "It's not a race to the bottom that we should be encouraging." 

Azocar said her organization has been concerned about the change since it was announced, and she doesn't think the province should press ahead with any of the planned changes to physician fees and compensation policy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These cuts will impact people, and that's something we're hoping will be addressed if the government ever gets back to the table to negotiate effectively with doctors" she said. "At the end of the day, it is Albertans who also get impacted by these discussions, and that's not really happening right now."


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