TORONTO - The fee dispute between the Liberals and the province's doctors was headed for court Tuesday after the Ontario Medical Association charged the government with bargaining in bad faith.
"They’ve put us in a position where we’re left with no other options," said OMA president Dr. Doug Weir.
"It is deeply disappointing that the government has devalued the role of physicians to the point where we are forced to take such a drastic step."
The OMA walked away from the negotiating table last month after the province cut $340 million worth of physicians' fees, and said Tuesday it wants a conciliator appointed before talks can resume.
"What we need is some reassurances if we go back to the table things will be different," said Weir.
"The thing that will reassure us more than anything else is if they agree to a third party conciliator to make sure it is in fact a fair process where they are going to listen to us rather than impose their cuts on the profession."
Health Minister Deb Matthews said the government hasn't ruled out a conciliator, but added one isn't needed for the government and OMA to talk about the major changes needed in health care.
"Trust me, the issue is not a conciliator," Matthews told reporters.
"The issue is: is there more money to spend on physicians? The answer to that was and remains no. There is no more money for doctors."
Doctors made great gains during the Liberals first eight years in office, but strapped with a $15-billion deficit, the government needs physicians — and all public sector workers — to agree to a two-year wage freeze, said Matthews. The province provides $11 billion a year for doctors' compensation, about 10 cents of every dollar it spends.
"We have increased doctors' compensation by 85 per cent in eight years," said Matthews.
"What we’re saying is that’s all we can afford right now. We can’t spend anymore than that on physician compensation."
The OMA said the Liberals never had any intention of bargaining in good faith, and wants the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to reverse the fee cuts.
"Some of the cuts they’ve imposed are going to hurt patient care," warned Weir.
"We can’t have bureaucrats cutting fees arbitrarily and think it’s not going to hurt health care."
The Progressive Conservatives favour a legislated pay freeze for all public sector employees, including doctors, and said the government shouldn't be surprised the OMA turned to the courts.
"I don’t know what they were thinking, but they should have known this was coming," said deputy PC Leader Christine Elliott.
"It is a mess and I think the Ministry (of Health) is taking a very heavy-handed approach with the doctors by essentially vilifying them in the court of public opinion."
The New Democrats said Matthews needs to agree to a conciliator to get back to the table with the OMA.
"There is a path forward that to me is quite reasonable: bring an independent third party, a conciliator, so that you can go back to the table," said NDP health critic France Gelinas.
"I don’t understand why it is so hard to take that little step."
The OMA, which represents 25,000 physicians, said the government's demand for a two-year wage freeze amounts to a pay cut for doctors.
"The McGuinty government continues to choose politics over patients," added Weir.
"Their stubbornness will have a negative impact on patient care, and puts at risk our ability to recruit and retain physicians in Ontario."
The Liberal government wants about 1.3 million public sector workers in the province to agree to a two-year pay freeze to help eliminate the deficit by 2017-18.