03/21/2012 12:22 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta government, physicians, reach tentative deal prior to election call

EDMONTON - The group that represents Alberta physicians has reached a tentative pay deal with the province after a year's worth of talks and only days before an anticipated provincial election call.

"The timing is what it is," Linda Slocombe, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said Wednesday.

"We need an agreement. We want to move forward and this is a first step in that."

But Alberta Liberal health critic David Swann — himself a medical doctor — said the agreement in principle was an attempt to placate angry physicians before politicians go to the polls.

"Everybody's happy when people are talking and solving problems, but this is clearly a desperate attempt before an election to solve problems that this government created."

The proposed agreement would give doctors a 2.5 per cent increase to physician fees this year and another 2.5 per cent retroactive to April 2011. The added cost to taxpayers is $181 million.

The deal would also give doctors a voice in setting health-care policy and includes a plan for limited arbitration on doctors' fees for insured services. It also increases funding for primary care networks.

It follows a year of fruitless talks and comes after the government's decision last month to impose a one-year contract extension on doctors.

The deal also comes in the wake of what some have called backtracking on Premier Alison Redford's promise to hold a public inquiry into charges that Alberta doctors were intimidated into remaining silent about their criticisms of the health-care system.

Doctors were so angry after both moves they took out a series of critical newspaper ads earlier this month.

"The ads from the AMA obviously did some damage to the government, as did the government's own mismanagement of all this process," said Swann.

"This does nothing to improve trust, this does nothing to improve the atmosphere."

Health Minister Fred Horne said getting the tentative agreement on pay opens the way to deal with other issues. He said he's meeting later this week with Redford, Slocombe and the chairwoman of Alberta Health Services to discuss how the workplace culture for doctors can be improved.

"Albertans expect us to have a good relationship and a sound foundation in terms of our work with doctors," said Horne.

"They expect us to talk about financial resources but they expect us to talk about outcomes — how we're going to improve access to family doctors, how we're going to reduce wait time for specialists — and those have been very much part of these discussions."

The last agreement between the province and its doctors expired March 31, 2011. The new one expires March 31, 2013.

Horne said the proposed two-year deal is intended to give the parties time to work out a long-term agreement. It includes a cost of living adjustment clause in case a new multi-year deal isn't reached before it expires.