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'Renegotiate in good faith,' mayor of Lac La Biche County urges province, doctors

The mayor of Lac La Biche County is pleading for a resumption of negotiations between the Alberta government and the province’s doctors, saying a global pandemic is “not the time to be fighting with your medical services.”

Says government's vow to replace 10 physicians won't be easy to achieve

The province of Manitoba and Doctors Manitoba, which bargains on behalf of physicians, have settled on a new four-year contract. The agreement still needs to be ratified by doctors. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The mayor of Lac La Biche County is pleading for a resumption of negotiations between the Alberta government and the province's doctors, saying a global pandemic is "not the time to be fighting with your medical services."

Late Thursday, 10 physicians with the Associated Medical Clinic in Lac La Biche served notice that they would resign their hospital privileges at the William J. Cadzow Healthcare Centre — effectively ending their availability for obstetrical and emergency care — at the end of July.

In a letter, the doctors said changes to their Schedule of Medical Benefit Claim fees have forced them to restructure their medical practice "to cope with the loss of income."

"They're frustrated," Omer Moghrabi, mayor of Lac La Biche County, told CBC News on Friday. "The morale for doctors during this pandemic, it's not really what you want.

"We're hearing it from a lot of rural Albertans ... they just want both parties to get together and renegotiate in good faith. We're in the middle of a pandemic and [doctors are] putting their lives on the line and yet they have this huge contract standing over their head."

'It's going to be difficult on them'

Two weeks ago, eight physicians in Sundre said they would rescind their hospital privileges as of July 1. A doctor in Rimbey announced plans to leave Alberta once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

The William J. Cadzow Healthcare Centre has 23 acute care beds and 42 continuing care beds, according to the Alberta Health Services website. In recent years, it has had equipment upgrades including a CT scanner, ultrasound and a dialysis machine, Moghrabi said.

Moghrabi is worried about the long distance between his community, 215 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, and hospitals in other urban centres.

The hamlet has a population of about 2,300 but Moghrabi said the hospital serves a population of about 15,000, including three First Nations and two Métis settlements. 

"It's 2½ hours to get to a major centre, or you have to fly in with air ambulance, which we have here in Lac La Biche," he said.

"It's a diversified population ... some of them are aging. For them to travel for medical services or emergencies. It's going to be difficult on them."

Steve Buick, press secretary for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, said the province will work with Alberta Health Services to replace the doctors.

But Moghrabi said it won't be that simple.

"It's very hard to recruit rural doctors. They're the kind of a different breed, they have to be a jack of all trades, master of none, the general practitioners, general surgeons," he said. "It took us over 10 years to recruit what we have."

Alberta Medical Association suing province

Eleven changes were initially planned to physician funding. One of those, regarding extra payments for longer visits, has been cancelled, Buick said.

He said payments to physicians are being maintained at $5.4 billion this year, and added that amount could rise with recent changes during the pandemic.

Alberta ended its long-standing master agreement with physicians in February.

Earlier this month, the Alberta Medical Association filed a lawsuit against the province over how the government pushed through changes in the way doctors can bill for their services.

The lawsuit seeks $5 million in general damages for what it says was a breach of physicians' rights and freedoms, and another $250 million in monetary losses for doctors due to the alleged breach of contract.

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