Doctors reach $181M pay deal

Tories accused of throwing money around before election

Days before an expected election call, the Tory government ripped up its physician salary hike imposed weeks ago and instead offered the province's 7,200 doctors a sweeter, $181-million compensation agreement.

Alberta's health minister said the tentative deal will help provide stability in the medical system, but opposition critics accused the PC government of trying to snuff out an outspoken physician advocacy campaign on the eve of a provincewide vote.

But Alberta doctor representatives vowed Wednesday not to back down from their increasingly vocal fight for a public inquiry into the intimidation of physicians who've advocated for patient care.

"These last-minute, Hail Mary negotiations have nothing to do with keeping us quiet," said Dr. Lloyd Maybaum, president of the Calgary and area medical staff association.

"There's no bloody way it's going to keep us quiet."

Last week, the province's five medical staff association presidents accused the government of stonewalling on physician issues.

And Maybaum called upon Albertans to bring in a "tsunami of change" and demand a health inquiry on physician intimidation.

The new physician salary proposal, which comes after doctors have been without a contract for more than a year, includes a 2.5 per cent fee increase each year for two years, retroactive to April 2011. The province's primary care networks will see per patient funding up $12 to $62.

The parties will continue working on a long-term agreement between Alberta Health Services, doctors and the provincial government.

If that can't be reached by March 31, 2013, the proposal gives physicians a cost of living hike in the third year. The tentative deal also provides a limited arbitration process on fees for insured services and some physician benefit programs.

Asked about the timing of the deal, Health Minister Fred Horne told reporters the agreement in principle is the product of discussions that have been taking place for months.

"I think it's what Albertans expect of government - they expect us to have a good relationship and a sound foundation in terms of our work with doctors," the minister said.

The new proposal comes just three weeks after the government imposed a controversial one-year, $93-million salary deal - including a two per cent fee increase - on doctors without negotiating.

Wednesday's tentative agreement, which must still be ratified by the AMA and the government, supersedes those terms.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, an emergency room physician, said the government is obviously running scared.

"They're desperate and they are trying to cut deals with everybody on the eve of an election."

Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson said the agreement smacks of electioneering.

"They're throwing money around like crazy right now," Anderson said. "I think it will be difficult to buy the silence of doctors. They're pretty passionate about getting their tsunami of change."

Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Linda Slocombe said the agreement could provide some stability for doctors who have been in compensation "limbo" for more than 12 months.

It will also help build a strong working relationship with the government, she added.

"We have been working on this for a long time," Slocombe said.

"The timing is what it is."

The Calgary family physician said the doctors' association is still committed to its vocal advocacy efforts, which included recent full page newspaper ads calling for a full public inquiry on doctor intimidation.

"Those sorts of advocacy initiatives will be ongoing, before, during and after the election," she added.

Last month, an independent report by the Health Quality Council of Alberta found more than half of all doctors surveyed said they'd been intimidated or bullied in the past year.

A few felt they were pushed out of the province or had their hospital privileges threatened after speaking out about the state of Alberta's $16-billion health-care system.

The government acknowledges the problem, but insists such cases do not need to be aired in a public forum, but rather the medical system must build a "just culture."

On the salary front, doctors and the government have been trying to work out a contract since the former eight-year agreement expired March 31, 2011.

With the 2012-13 budget already passed by the legislature on Tuesday, Alberta's health minister may have to ask Treasury Board to help fund the new doctors' deal.

Finance Minister Ron Liepert said the money promised to doctors may not increase Alberta's budget deficit if there is a revised quarterly update reducing the red ink forecast.

"I wouldn't jump to the fact that it will increase the deficit," he said. "It will increase the project spending."

Liepert said he assumed Health Minister Fred Horne will come to Treasury Board seeking the money, which was not included in the budget.

Likewise, Premier Alison Redford said she didn't expect the physician costs to impact the deficit in this year's budget.

"As we move ahead into next year, it could have a slight impact, but with the surpluses we're projecting, it's always a matter of balancing as we go forward."

Calgary Herald, Thurs Mar 22 2012
Byline: Jamie Komarnicki and Darcy Henton

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