05/09/2012 10:28 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Health minister won't back down on doctor fee cuts

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews is vowing to press ahead with cuts to the fees some doctors are paid, despite strong pushback from the body that represents physicians in the province.

"There was a lot of room for negotiation," Matthews told CBC's Metro Morning in an interview.

"And I can tell you these changes are proceeding. But we do have more work to do. Because this does not get us all the way to a real pay freeze."

The government said it would save $338.3 million in the coming year by implementing these changes, which amount to 80 per cent of the cuts it needs to make to freeze total doctor compensation at $11 billion this year.

The Ontario Medical Association says the government's decision to impose a new fee schedule is unfair, particularly when doctors agreed to take a two-year wage freeze and find an additional $250-million in savings.

Under the changes, some specialists will be more affected than others, especially ophthalmologists, cardiologists & radiologists.

The OMA has warned that the fee cuts will result in longer wait times for common procedures like X-rays and radiology diagnoses. The association has also warned patients will have less access to care because the new fee schedule may prompt doctors to leave the province or simply retire.

"I have to get the best value for every dollar I spend," said Matthews when asked about the possibility of specialists leaving.

"And if I'm spending money on procedures and tests that don't benefit patients, then I don't want to spend that money, because there's a whole lot in the health care system that does need that investment."

Matthews said the government still has more work to do when it comes to improving health care, particularly when it comes to to family physicians.

"We need more family [doctors] providing same day and next day appointments because 37 per cent of people going to emergency departments wouldn't have got there if they could have got an appointment in time with their doctors," she said.

The physician services agreement expired at the end of March. Matthews had set a deadline for last weekend to come to an agreement with the OMA, with whom the government had been formally negotiating since February.

The cash-strapped government has insisted it can't afford any new funding increases for doctors as it faces a $15-billion deficit.