Alberta Doctor Pay: Health Minister Fred Horne Eyes Reopening Deal, But Says No More Money

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EDMONTON - Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne says he will consider a request from doctors to go back to the bargaining table — but there's no extra money.

"I'm encouraged to see that the (Alberta Medical Association) wants to resume discussions but I want to take some time to consider my response," Horne told reporters Tuesday.

"I want to emphasize that the additional funding that we provided, the $463-million, is in fact the most we have available."

AMA president Dr. Michael Giuffre told reporters earlier in the day in Calgary that he had written to Horne calling for a resumption of talks with a deadline by the end of the year.

Giuffre called the five-year deal imposed last Friday on doctors a step back both in terms of pay and in policy.

"This imposition has taken away the voice of physicians," said Giuffre. "We do not have a say in health care right now and we insist on having that say."

Giuffre wouldn't say whether the doctors would resort to job action to back their demands, but said they were keeping "all options on the table."

The AMA, which speaks for more than 8,000 physicians, estimates that the deal is a $210-million pay cut to doctors, once program and fee changes are factored in.

Horne said he's willing to negotiate how programs and fees are funded, with an eye to shifting money around.

He said there needs to be a better road map.

"It has been 20 months that we've been trying to negotiate this agreement and we haven't had a lot of success," said Horne.

"So I want to make sure if and when we do go back that we've got a plan to get there and to be successful."

Opposition Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, also an emergency room doctor, said he does not want to see job action.

"For me, as an emergency room doctor, I have a duty to make sure the emergency is staffed and covered 24 hours a day," said Sherman.

"I'd prefer the government does its job and gets off their lazy butts and gets back to the work of negotiating and come to a compromise so patients don't get caught in the middle."

NDP Leader Brian Mason said Horne needs to find a better way to get the job done. "The arbitrary decision to impose a settlement was a big mistake."

The two sides have been bargaining since the last pay deal for doctors expired in March 2011. They have twice reached agreements in principle since then, only to see the deals fall apart.

Horne imposed the deal on doctors last Friday, saying the latest round of bargaining had shown him they were at a stalemate. He said the new deal keeps Alberta doctors the best paid in Canada.

Fees and related payments to doctors currently cost taxpayers about $3.5 billion a year — 22 per cent of the $16-billion health budget.

The new contract includes a one-time, lump-sum payment of 2.5 per cent for each physician based on 2011-12 billings. Annual increases will be tied to the cost of living in each of the next three years.

Giuffre has said the government had in earlier talks agreed to 2.5 per cent fee increases.

Also, he noted, the government is ending two programs to support community based physicians, saving $120 million but with no guarantee the money will be made up in some other way.

Giuffre said doctors also want more say in how fees are set up for various procedures amid rapidly changing technologies in the health field.

The two sides are also at loggerheads on how to implement Premier Alison Redford's plan for more community-based care.

Redford has committed to building 140 family care clinics that would exist alongside 40 primary care networks.

The primary care networks are run by, and preferred by, the physicians. Whereas the family care clinics are to be staffed by a team of professionals, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and dietitians.

— With files from CHQR

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