Alberta Doctors Should Reject the Tentative Agreement

Disclaimer: Just a reminder that, once again, I am not speaking on behalf of the Ontario Medical Association. The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone.

Many who read this will wonder why I’m talking about a potential physicians agreement in another province. Some will point to my role at the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) as past-president and suggest that I should stay out of the affairs of another Provincial, Territorial Medical Association (PTMA). Normally I would. But the situation in Alberta has implications for physicians across the country, including Ontario, so I feel compelled to speak out. Besides, considering the then President of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) commented on our own tentative agreement in 2016 (and he was right by the way), I think it’s ok for me to speak out as well.

I don’t know all the details about the ins and outs of how the AMA works, nor do I know all minutiae about their negotiations process.

But I know when doctors are getting screwed by a government.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro

Last week, the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), announced a tentative agreement with their government. The agreement allows their volatile, combustible Health Minister Tyler Shandro almost unlimited, and truly unprecedented power over Alberta Physicians:

  • It reduces their physician pay to 2018 levels
  • It gives the temperamental Shandro Ultimate authority over how much physicians get paid. Just read this truly scary statement by the AMA:

“The AMA acknowledges that the physician services budget is established by the minister in the minister’s sole discretion,” it states.

“The AMA further acknowledges that nothing in this agreement fetters the minister’s authority or discretion with respect to the physician services budget.”

  • It places a hard cap on the physicians services budget, meaning that if the demand for care went up above the predicted level, physicians incomes would be clawed back to make up the difference. As an aside, demand will almost certainly exceed the projections. We are coming out of a pandemic and are facing an enormous backlog of care. How eager do you think the volatile Shandro will be to allow an overage of the physicians service budget going forward?
  • Worse, the AMA is required to discontinue their lawsuit demanding binding arbitration, which all physicians should view as an inherent right.

For me personally, the whole Alberta situation has brought back some particularly bad memories. In 2012 the OMA accepted a 0.5% fee cut in the hopes that appeasement of a bullying government would lead to better things in the future. This of course is not the way to stand up to bullies, and Ontario physicians felt the brunt of this as the now second worst health minister I have ever seen, “Unilateral Eric” Hoskins, sensing weakness, imposed unilateral cuts to physicians in 2015.

After a couple of years of internecine warfare, the OMA and Unilateral Eric came to a tentative agreement in 2016 as well. That agreement:

  • Reduced physicians pay to levels from a few years back setting a lower base rate for the Physician Service Budget
  • Allowed for a hard cap on physicians billing
  • Allowed the Health Minister to claw back physicians billings if usage exceeded projections

Sound familiar? At least the Ontario agreement allowed our own Charter Challenge on Binding Arbitration to continue (which it painfully, slowly does to this day).

We were told by the OMA Board at the time that this agreement was the “best that could be done” and that we were going be faced with even more clawbacks and cuts if we turned it down. As is well known now, the agreement was soundly rejected, the increased clawbacks never materialized and when faced with the prospect of an election, the government of then Premier Kathleen Wynne finally had to recognize that Arbitration was an inherent right for all essential workers, physicians included, and we secured a fair Binding Arbitration Framework.

All of which is my way of encouraging Alberta Physicians to realize that they don’t have to simply roll over and accept the “best we can get”. While there will be some pain in rejecting the agreement, at the end of the day, governments need to go to the polls. That’s when having angry doctors makes them vulnerable. It will not be pleasant to hold out, and say no (it certainly wasn’t in Ontario!) but I submit that it is better to keep your integrity intact and stand up to a patently unfair deal.

But wait, what about these implications for physicians across Canada I referred to? It all has to do with negotiations.

Obviously, I can’t talk in detail about negotiations. BUT, what I can confirm is what many of us have long suspected. Bureaucrats from Provincial Governments talk to each other all the time. They share data. They share information, and they share tactics. They may or may not (depending on their political masters) use a particular tactic/program/scheme etc, but they do share.

Which means, that IF Alberta docs pass an agreement like this, which chains them to a hard cap and allows even a minister as incendiary as Shandro, free, unfettered reign, then we can expect other governments to attempt this as well. “Your colleagues in Alberta accepted this, why can’t you be as reasonable and co-operative as them?”will be the opening position in negotiations in many provinces after this.

That is why physicians across the country should follow the situation in Alberta with interest. That is why we should support our Alberta colleagues. That is why, for the sake of physicians in Alberta, and everywhere in Canada, this deal needs to be rejected.

If you want more, a colleague has prepared a helpful Q&A about our situation, and you can access it here.

Author: justanoldcountrydoctor

Practicing rural family medicine since 1992. I still have active privileges at the Collingwood Hospital. Immediate Past-President of the Ontario Medical Association.

3 thoughts on “Alberta Doctors Should Reject the Tentative Agreement”

  1. I am presumably the person you referred to as the AMA President who commented on an OMA contract.
    In 2016 i was just a country doctor again. I had been President a couple of years earlier but by 2015 I was simply a former President. I had no official AMA position when i commented on the OMA contract.

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