Contract talks fall apart between Alberta government, doctors

Efforts to secure a new deal between the Alberta government and physicians hit another roadblock Friday after the government called the voluntary mediation process “unsuccessful.”

According to a statement attributed to Health Minister Tyler Shandro Friday evening, the government will maintain current spending moving forward.

“The government of Alberta is spending more than ever before on our public health care system … in order to ensure that our public health care system remains sustainable, we must act to maintain physician spending at current levels,” the statement reads. “Unfortunately, efforts to achieve this goal were unsuccessful during voluntary mediation with the Alberta Medical Association.”

At the end of last month, the two sides brought in a mediator to try to break a logjam on the talks surrounding the new master agreement, which is set to expire at the end of March. Both sides agreed on the mediator.

The master agreement revolves around the broad relationship between doctors and the government. Changes pending will impact working conditions for provincial doctors, as well as compensation.

In their statement, the government said it would now take time to consider “all options” at its disposal.

Steve Buick, press secretary for Shandro, said there are no more details available at this time as to what those options might look like.

The province said savings gained through curtailing physician compensation costs would be reinvested into reducing surgical wait times, addressing mental health and addictions and investing in continuing care.

“Our government believes we can address these priorities, while also keeping our hardworking and dedicated physicians amongst the highest paid in Canada,” the statement reads.

The province is paying $5.3 billion this year for physicians.

Doctors’ response

In a statement provided to CBC News, Dr. Christine Molnar, head of the Alberta Medical Association, said she was disappointed that mediation had failed.

“Physicians offered substantial short-term savings, among other considerations,” she wrote. “Our offer was rejected.”

The AMA confirmed to CBC News that work with the mediator had ended, but that the organization is still open to talks and negotiations.

Among the most contentious changes sought by the government are changes to complex modifiers, which would affect how long a doctor must see patients before they tack on extra fees.

Lorian Hardcastle, a health professor at the University of Calgary, said she was surprised how quickly talks had broken down.

“Different provinces and different physician groups have had controversial or contentious contract negotiations before. But I think that the government has been extremely aggressive in the strategy it has pursued,” Hardcastle said. “They have moved really quickly in making cuts in the healthcare system since being elected, so I’m not surprised this issue has come to a head.”

The potential next steps in the contract negotiations are currently unclear. Hardcastle said she thinks both sides likely assumed they would come to an agreement through voluntary negotiations.

“The mediation did not go on that long, so I expect perhaps they’ll agree to another round of mediation,” she said. “Because the last thing the province or the doctors want is to have no agreement in place at all.”