05/30/2013 05:19 EDT | Updated 07/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta Doctors Accept Contract With Province; Seven-Year Deal

Doctor writing prescription selective focus
EDMONTON - Alberta's rank-and-file doctors signed off on a seven-year contract with the province Thursday, wrapping up years of sometimes bitter negotiations.

"I was always hopeful that this day would arrive," said Health Minister Fred Horne.

"I must say I'm really pleased to see not only the fact that we have ratification by members of the Alberta Medical Association, but that it is such a high figure.

"It's a great day for Alberta physicians, but it's a great day for our health system as well."

The Alberta Medical Association announced that almost 94 per cent of its members who voted accepted the deal with the province. Voter turnout was 38 per cent, which the medical association said is typical.

In an open letter to doctors, association president Michael Giuffre said "solidarity and support carried the day and allowed the AMA to find a way forward to conclude these lengthy and challenging negotiations."

Doctors don't get a pay increase for the first three years of the contract. But the agreement is retroactive to April 2011, when the last contract expired, so the first two years of the pay freeze are already over.

The deal includes a one-time, lump-sum payment totalling $68 million to address financial challenges for doctors maintaining their own practices.

The contract also promises a physician compensation committee that will, among other duties, adjust relative payment rates or fees for various procedures or services.

There is also recognition of the association as the ongoing representative of physicians for compensation talks and a commitment by Alberta Health to continue to work with the group on primary care.

The two sides will consult on ongoing implementation of electronic medial records and on ways to find savings in the system.

Contract talks have been going on for years and turned bitter in recent months.

Late last year, Horne imposed a wage deal on the doctors, but then withdrew it in the face of widespread criticism.

In March, Giuffre wrote a public letter to Premier Alison Redford, urging she reprimand Horne for breaking promises to doctors during negotiations. He said Horne hid key financial numbers and imposed short, arbitrary deadlines that hindered the process.

Horne said bad blood is typical when dealing with contentious issues.

"I don't think any successful negotiation is going to be a smooth and easy process," said Horne.

"If you're actually committed to sitting down at the table and dealing with difficult issues in health care, you're going to have some acrimony along the way."

The AMA represents Alberta's 8,000 physicians.

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