03/13/2012 03:40 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. anesthesiologists threaten to pull services over seat at bargaining table

VANCOUVER - A contract dispute involving a group of British Columbia anesthesiologists has boiled over into name-calling between politicians and physicians.

Health Minister Mike de Jong said Tuesday the B.C. Anesthesiologists' Society was trying to hold patients hostage with its threat to withdraw services for elective surgeries if its demands aren't met April 1.

"I would characterize the threat as unprofessional and, in my view, unethical," de Jong told reporters in Victoria.

The government has asked the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons to censure the group of doctors for threatening the service withdrawal and for claims the association has made over the past few months.

The censure request came as a surprise to association president Dr. Jeff Rains, who said he hadn't been informed of the complaint.

Rains dismissed the complaint as a government tactic meant to intimidate doctors.

"That's not what the college is there for," he said. "I think that is an unethical abuse of the college itself."

The entire dispute revolves around the bargaining mechanism between doctors and the Health Ministry.

The B.C. Medical Association is the sole bargainer for the province's 11,000 doctors, but the anesthesiologists society wants to negotiate its own issues at the bargaining table.

The group said its concerns include recruiting and retaining doctors, cutting waiting lists, patient safety and efficiencies in the system.

De Jong believes the problem is much narrower.

"Let's not kid ourselves, this is a dispute about money, and a group — not all, but a group — of anesthetists who want to hold patients hostage to secure more money for themselves," the minister said.

The society says it represents about 400 anesthesiologists.

Over the past decade, de Jong said anesthesiologists have received a 33 per cent wage increase compared to a 22 per cent pay hike for general practitioners. They make about $350,000 a year with little overhead, he said.

Rains said the medical association has stopped representing them and other doctors during contract negotiations, and he said it's frustrating his group isn't being heard.

"I'm not going to lie to you and say that I'm shopping in the dented-tins isle in the grocery story," Rains said in an interview. "But it is about recruitment and retention partially, it is about reducing wait lists for surgeries, it is about increasing efficiencies."

B.C. Medical Association president Dr. Nasir Jetha said he was surprised to hear anesthesiologists make such a claim.

"It is really saddening that they've chosen to do this. It's not fair for the rest of the 11,000 doctors who chose to abide by the rules and the agreement."

Formal negotiations have ended between the medical association and the Health Ministry without an agreement. Both sides are preparing for conciliation, but no date has been set for those discussions.

The doctors' contract expires March 31 this year.

It's unclear whether the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. will rule before the doctors' April 1 deadline.

But de Jong said he was optimistic that there wouldn't be job action if the college told doctors of their obligations and duties.

He apologized in advance to any patients who might be hurt by the threatened job action.

The Health Ministry has found extra funding in the past to settle disputes with other doctor groups and funnelled that through the physicians master agreement.

In July, the government brought in a $10 million program to increase emergency care in rural areas which allowed for the hiring of new doctors and doctor incentives for weekend, holiday and night shift coverage.

Late last year, the province and the medical association signed a $2.5-million agreement that provided for obstetrical anesthesia services 24 hours a day in all tertiary care maternity hospitals for better support of high-risk pregnancies.