02/26/2014 10:15 EST | Updated 04/28/2014 05:59 EDT

New Brunswick health minister open to new deal on electronic health records

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's health minister says he's willing to renegotiate a contract with the New Brunswick Medical Society in an effort to get more doctors connected to an electronic medical records system, but the society says the government has repeatedly stymied efforts to do that.

Hugh Flemming said Wednesday he is willing to drop a clause in the contract that gives the medical society the exclusive rights to provide an electronic medical records system to the province's doctors.

"I want the system to succeed," Flemming said. "It's good for health care in New Brunswick."

He was responding to figures released a day earlier that show only 240 of the 950 eligible doctors in the province have signed on to use electronic medical records software offered by Velante, a subsidiary of the medical society.

Many doctors have previously purchased other software to access electronic medical records and say it's too expensive to switch.

There are about 15 different software systems being used by doctors in the province, and Flemming says he's heard that some of the software providers have offered to connect their clients to the provincial electronic health record system at no cost to the province.

But Flemming said he can't allow that because he's bound by the contract with the medical society.

"If the medical society wants to request the government to change the exclusivity clause of the agreement, we're totally open to that," Flemming said.

"This is not our initiative. ... The medical society wanted the exclusivity."

Anthony Knight, CEO of the medical society, said having one software system still makes sense because of the size of the province.

There are 1,627 physicians in the province. But Flemming said many work only in hospitals and don't need an electronic medical records system for an office, or they are specialists who have been excluded by the province's criteria to be eligible for the Velante system, reducing the number of eligible doctors to 950.

Knight said the society has tried to get the government to change the criteria.

"We've made five proposals to the Department of Health with the goal of bringing more doctors on board, which were all denied," he said. "We are now surprised there is willingness to renegotiate the agreement."

Liberal health critic Don Arseneault said he agrees there should be one software system, but he added that enrolment should be mandatory.

"If you want to get paid you've got to be in the program too, but give them the proper time to transition into the program and make sure there's a financial incentive," Arseneault said.

But Flemming said he can't dictate what software doctors should buy.

Doctors have until the end of March to sign up and receive government funding to offset the costs of enrolling in the new electronic health records system.

Physicians each pay $8,000 and Canada Health Infoway provides matching funds. The Health Department also pays $4,000 per physician, which is matched by Canada Health Infoway, to integrate the medical society's software with the province's electronic health record.

Doctors can still enrol in the program after April 1, but it's expected they would have to pay the full $24,000 cost set by Velante.

Flemming said physicians can still access the province's electronic health record online if they don't have the electronic medical records system.