FREDERICTON - The New Brunswick Medical Society says it plans to launch a legal challenge of the provincial government's $20 million cut to medicare, arguing that it violates the government's contract with doctors.
"The government has a signed agreement with doctors," Dr. Robert Desjardins, the medical society's president, said Wednesday. "We have asked them repeatedly to honour it, and the Alward government has made clear that they will not."
The doctors' six-year contract, which includes a wage freeze in the final two years of the deal, expires at the end of March 2014.
Desjardins said the cut to medicare and a subsequent two-year cap on medicare payments at $425 million were imposed on doctors by Health Minister Hugh Flemming during a meeting in February while they were eager to negotiate.
"He stated that he wanted to abandon our legislated negotiated process to form a new special table and he told us he was cutting $20 million from medicare," Desjardins said.
Flemming said the cut and cap on medicare is a separate matter from the doctors' contract and the government is fully within its rights to set medicare spending by regulation.
He said he is willing to negotiate with the medical society at any time to find ways to control health care spending.
"We stand ready, able and willing, anywhere, any time, any place to sit down with the medical society and save health care in New Brunswick," he said.
Flemming, a former corporate lawyer, said the medical society has the right to take the matter to court, but he is standing his ground.
"I will not waver and I will not flinch on doing the right thing because I am not the minister of health for the medical society. I'm the minister of health for the people of New Brunswick."
Flemming is getting some support from an unlikely camp.
Dr. Jim Parrot, who sits as an Independent member in the legislature, agrees that the cap is a separate issue and is encouraging Flemming to stick with his position.
The former heart surgeon was booted from the Progressive Conservative caucus as a backbencher last September after openly criticizing the government for failing to listen to the province's doctors.
Parrot said both sides need to talk.
"I'm trying to work with the government," he said. "But I'm also working with my medical colleagues and telling them it's time to step up to the plate."
Parrot said all options for controlling health spending must be discussed.
"If we don't, we're not going to have publicly funded health care in this province," he said.
Desjardins said physicians have lost trust in the Progressive Conservative government, but Flemming said many doctors don't support the society's position.
"I get a lot of encouragement from a number of doctors who say, 'Stay the course, you're doing the right thing,'" Flemming said.
The medical society represents the province's 1,600 doctors.
Last week, Flemming detailed his department's spending plans for 2013-14 in the legislature. He said while there was $103 million in new spending, it was offset by cuts and other savings equal to the same amount.