Alberta doctors' group, province to meet as dispute over cuts simmers

Dr. Joel Giddey examines patient Tammy Cyr at the Shale Medical Clinic in Drayton Valley, Alberta on March 3, 2020. LARRY WONG Larry Wong / POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Faced with an increasingly fraught pay dispute, the Alberta Medical Association and the provincial government are forming a working group with the hope of cementing a new agreement, the AMA announced in a letter to its membership Saturday.

The disagreement over physician compensation resulted in the imposition of a new pay framework by the UCP government last month.

“We as a working group will be able to meet and discuss the situation that we’re in and hopefully find a way forward that will be satisfactory for both the profession and the government,” said AMA president Christine Molnar, who emphasized the importance of keeping conversations civil.

“We’re hoping that it’s an avenue to a successful, respectful and fair agreement.”

In February, the Alberta government unilaterally terminated its funding contract with the AMA and imposed changes to rules and fees that it called necessary to handle health care cost overruns in the province. The contract outlined doctor pay, benefits and working conditions, and included contentious changes for doctors, including no longer allowing physicians to bill for overhead costs for all hospital-based services.

The conflict reached a fever pitch Wednesday, when nearly 600 doctors signed a letter warning that physicians will leave the province if the government makes cuts without consultations.

Saturday’s announcement is an about-face for the AMA and Molnar, who at the time of the announcement of the new pay framework called it an “attack on physicians” by the province.

The working group includes four representatives for each party. Coming to the table with the province are former Alberta Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Lyle Oberg, University of Calgary professor Kabir Jivraj, adviser to the health minister Ivan Bernardo and health consultant Feisal Keshavjee. AMA’s team includes two former presidents, Darryl LaBuick and Michael Giuffre, as well as AMA executive director Mike Gormley and Hal Danchilla — a political strategist who recently worked on Premier Jason Kenney’s campaign.

Multiple members of the working group declined to comment when reached Saturday evening.

The group will focus on government budget requirements and solutions, Molnar said, with most of its members having a background in the finances of the health care system. The end goal is a negotiated agreement between doctors and the province.

In a statement, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Tara Jago said the working group is just one facet of ongoing conversations between the province and physicians.

“As has been made clear from the beginning, the Government of Alberta is open to reviewing any proposals that the Alberta Medical Association may wish to put forward, subject only to holding the line on physician spending at $5.4 billion,” Jago said.

“Discussions on a variety of matters important to government and the AMA have been occurring in many different forms, both formal and informal. A small working group has been established to assist the AMA in presenting any proposals that they may wish to bring forward.”

There’s no time frame for the working group, according to Molnar, who only said that she expects it will take a while to work through the dispute and settle on something that both parties will accept.

“This is an opportunity to address the impasse that we’re currently in, and hopefully it will yield results,” Molnar said.

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