“Smokey” Thomas Fails His Members

Authour’s Note:  Once again, I would like to state that while I am President-Elect of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), I have not spoken with any of the Family Doctors in Owen Sound about this situation.  I did email them to ask permission to write this.  All of my thoughts are strictly based on reports in the media, and news releases (all of which are hyperlinked).

Last week I had suggested that Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) President Warren “Smokey” Thomas should change his approach on how he dealt with physicians in union disputes.  Sadly, Smokey has doubled down on his tactics.  In doing so, not only has he utterly and completely failed his members, but he risks endangering health care in Owen Sound.

In Owen Sound (population ~ 21,000) there are 22 family doctors who have organized themselves into a Family Health Organization (FHO).  The FHO is a fairly common payment model that consists essentially of a salary and performance bonuses.  Like all other payment models the FHO models experienced years of deep cuts to their budgets during the desultory tenure of Premier Kathleen Wynne.  Cuts to physician payments, mean cuts to patient services.  Hence, the FHO focused on controlling expenses as best it could.

The staff at the FHO chose to unionize (which is their right) but unfortunately chose to do so under OPSEU, and became Local 276.  OPSEU and Smokey have absolutely no experience in dealing with intimate small office settings, and the necessary collegiality that is essential to providing high quality front line care.  As a Family Doctor, you MUST trust everyone from the receptionist, to the nurse and even the cleaning staff.  While disagreements occur, and are often healthy, the trust cannot be compromised, or patient care will suffer.

Smokey and OPSEU’s lack of experience showed almost immediately. Their bargaining team agreed to a contract and recommended it for approval to the FHO staff in May.  That’s right folks, OPSEU actually reached an agreement.  But the agreement was rejected by the FHO staff, a clear repudiation of OSPEU’s leadership.

This appears to be when Smokey went off the rails.  He (and OPSEU) could have taken a hard look at themselves and asked a simple question – “How could we be so out of touch with the members we represent, to have endorsed a deal they rejected off hand?”. But they didn’t.  Instead, in what seems to be an effort to prove to their members that they really are relevant, they doubled down and started hurling insults and threats.   Doctors were “punch drunk with greed” they screamed.

The FHO staff then went on strike, and the results appear to be disastrous for them.  Firstly, OPSEU should have told them that doctors office are not factories that make sprockets and cogs.  They provide essential medical services and they cannot be shut down.  The physicians continued to work, with legally allowable replacement staff (albeit at reduced levels).  All a picket line would do is harass patients, and that won’t win you public support.

Reports of harassment and even a serious medical event involving a replacement worker appeared, although it’s unverified.  Again, instead of stopping to think “What exactly are we accomplishing here?” Smokey, doubled down, increased his insults to physicians, demanded that the Health Minister and Owen Sound Town Council get involved (he failed miserably).  He also made a ludicrous allegation that physicians were “private and for profit”. Has Smokey not read the Canada Health Act?  Physicians haven’t been private since 1984.

Apparently, ten of the 30 FHO staff got wise to what a lousy job Smokey and OPSEU were doing, and actually quit their jobs.  Yet another opportunity for OPSEU to reflect on their own failures as a bargaining agent.  But yet again, Smokey lashed out, this time by asking the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) to get involved.

Let’s be clear, the letter written by OPSEU is a collection of hearsay without naming any one physician. As such, it cannot possibly be investigated by the CPSO.  If they were to do so, it would diminish the already poor standing the CPSO has in the eye of most physicians, and would send a pall over the entire profession. They would almost certainly faced increased calls from physicians to lose self-regulation if there was anything other than a cursory “thank you, but this is outside of our purview” type response.

But the reality also is that a letter to regulatory body like this takes you beyond any hope of restoring trust in your team.  It’s the one thing that has potential to destroy careers. It’s the one action that essentially screams “irreconcilable differences”.  By going down this road, in what seems to be a desperate attempt to prove his worth, Smokey has caused a toxic meltdown to the point where there is no hope of a resolution.

The members of OPSEU Local 276 would do well at this point to really ask themselves if this is the kind of leadership they signed up for.

Nothing Wrong With Advocating For Physicians

Authour’s note:  This opinion piece of mine was published in the Medical Post.  However, many physicians are unable to access that as you need a dedicated account.  I’ve reproduced it here.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has been embroiled in controversy this past year.  It first started with the announcement of “Vision 2020”, the new strategic plan for the CMA. What’s the first priority of the plan? “Consistently bring a patient perspective to the work of the CMA.”  The second priority?  “Engage in courageous, influential and collaborative dialogue and advocacy.”

This all sounds nice, and politically correct and oh so socially conscious.  Except for one thing.  The CMA is supposed to represent physicians and their needs.  That’s the whole reason for its existence.  Instead, physician representation is third on the priority list, and even there, it’s couched in phrasing like “based on empowering and caring for patients, promoting healthy populations and supporting a vibrant medical profession.”

From the perspective of the CMA’s leaders, I suppose the needs of the general membership don’t really matter.  The recent sale of MD management to ScotiaBank has provided the CMA with a significant amount of revenue.  So much so that they likely don’t even need members anymore.  It’s worthwhile noting that the first $15 million from the sale has been earmarked for a building for health care innovation, as opposed to, you know, a program to look at the alarmingly high burnout rates of physicians.  Certainly the changes made at CMA Governing Council (no more motions to direct the organization) prevent the CMA Board paying attention to silly little things, like the duly elected representatives of physicians across the country.  (NB – it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge that at least the General Membership will be able vote on all the Board members for the CMA.  However, I’m curious to see what the criteria are for becoming a candidate for CMA Board).

There is similar pressure to advocate for patients and health care policy, being placed on the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), particularly on social media.  Recently the OMA has been asked by various physicians to:

– sign letters opposing the separation of children from parents of migrants

– condemn the changes to sexual education curriculum made by Premier Doug Ford’s government

– speak out against the pause to Vaping rules, also made by Doug Ford’s government

– express concerns about the health care for trans gender patients

– and a bunch more.

There are merits to all of those causes (the separation of children from parents is the one I feel strongest about – it’s just child abuse). There is also the argument that physician’s organizations should use their authority to advocate for social issues, as it increases our standing in the eyes of the public and makes us “leaders”. This enhanced standing will supposedly help us when we advocate for ourselves.  The cynics, especially those of us burnt by the previous Ontario government will strongly disagree with this.

But here’s the thing, there are so many good causes out there to advocate for.  And they will keep coming.  How should the OMA, which unlike the CMA, continues to need broad member support, choose?

There is already disagreement about vaping rules/sex ed curriculums and so on.  What happens when the OMA is presented with information about the poor health care Rohingyan women receive?  Or the damage the contaminated water in Flint Michigan has caused?  Or if you want controversy, how about the malnutrition and mental health issues suffered by Palestinian children?  The OMA is supposed to represent 40,000 members with a diverse range of views, not just those who are motivated by one particular issue.

Many Provincial and Territorial Medical Associations (PTMAs) offer media training and advocacy courses.  The OMA for example, has long been asking physicians to become advocates.  Perhaps rather than criticizing on social media, those who feel passionately about various issues can receive the training to allow them to become leaders in their areas of interest.  They can then directly get their message across to the public and work for whatever their cause is.  They are still doctors, and they will still be seen in the public’s eye as doctors taking a lead on health care issues.

As for the PTMAs is it really too much to ask that they focus on membership advocacy first and foremost?  There is absolutely nothing wrong with advocating for meaningful action on high burnout rates, fair contracts and improved working conditions with less interference from bureaucracy.  It’s what these organizations are supposed to do.  The simply reality is that you cannot have a high functioning health care system without happy, healthy and engaged physicians.  Surely advocating for the same is not unreasonable.