05/15/2012 11:11 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Doctors' group urges physicians to look outside Ontario due to labour woes

TORONTO - Ontario doctors embroiled in a fight with the Liberal government over cuts to their fees and a proposed wage freeze were advised Tuesday to start looking elsewhere for employment.

The Coalition of Family Physicians and Specialists of Ontario warned doctors may want to leave the province, calling the government's actions are "a serious threat to the medical profession and the people we serve."

The group said Ontario doctors are under a "disgraceful public attack" from the government's tight-fisted approach to physician pay and should think twice about investing money in their practices.

"Physicians should carefully consider the wisdom of capital investments in their practices and the commitment to other long-term financial liabilities including leases," said Coalition president Dr. Douglas Mark.

"Physicians should explore options in more hospitable practice jurisdictions."

Premier Dalton McGuinty said he wasn't worried that Ontario doctors would suddenly start fleeing to the United States or other provinces such as Alberta because of the pay and public respect they get here.

"I think the average U.S. G.P. earns about $150,000 less than the average Ontario family practitioner and I think when it comes to specialists, there's a very strong differential as well," said McGuinty.

"We've reversed the brain drain, it's now a brain gain."

The Liberal government points out it has increased the average pay for Ontario doctors by 75 per cent since 2003 to about $385,000 a year, even higher for specialists.

More than 400 doctors in Ontario are billing over $1 million a year, and 20 earned over $2 million in 2011.

The cash-strapped province, facing a $15 billion deficit, wants a two year wage freeze for all public sector workers, including teachers, nurses and doctors, but is facing blow back from the same groups the Liberals rewarded well during their first two terms in office.

"We think we've gone a really good job of ensuring that we've got an attractive package here for doctors, and I think it should buy us a little bit of time now to hit that pause button (on salaries) for a couple of years," said McGuinty.

However, the doctors are fuming that the Liberals went ahead and reduced hundreds of fees for a variety of services they provide to save about $338 million in the next year after the Ontario Medical Association walked away from contract talks.

The Coalition of Family Physicians and Specialists said no other province has the power to unilaterally alter physician funding at will, and warned the Liberals have more "severe" cuts planned.

"These cuts will force physicians into drastic measures in their practices," said the coalition.

"The McGuinty government's actions will undoubtedly result in reductions in access to medical care, more people without family physicians and longer wait times to see specialists, for diagnostic testing and to have surgery," said Dr. Mark.

Health Minister Deb Matthews lashed out at the coalition for telling doctors to leave Ontario for greener pastures.

"I'd love to know where family doctors think they can get a better place than in Ontario," said Matthews.

"Ontario is a great place to practice. It's a far better place to practice than it was when we took office when people couldn't get family doctors and wait times for surgeries were far, far too long."

The New Democrats didn't appreciate the group saying doctors should leave Ontario, but also criticized the Liberals for cutting fees without first negotiating a deal with the physicians.

"I think it proves that the best way to get these things resolved is in a respectful process at a negotiating table because otherwise relationships get poisoned," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

The Progressive Conservatives wanted a legislated wage freeze for everyone in the public sector, including doctors.

McGuinty said doctors are also well respected in Ontario, something he said they may not find elsewhere.

"Money's important, compensation is an issue, but also the regard in which you are held by the population as a whole, I think is very important," he said.