Alberta government surrendering power to impose pay deals on doctors

Alberta's Health Minister Jason Copping has tabled legislation that would remove the government's ability to rip up pay agreements with doctors and unilaterally impose new ones. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Alberta's Health Minister Jason Copping has tabled legislation that would remove the government's ability to rip up pay agreements with doctors and unilaterally impose new ones. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Alberta government is repealing a law that gave cabinet the power to unilaterally rip up and replace agreements with the province's doctors.

In return, the Alberta Medical Association has committed to withdrawing a lawsuit against the province.

Health Minister Jason Copping told reporters at an embargoed press conference Monday that his government is fulfilling a commitment made to doctors.

"This legislation is another step in our relationship with Alberta's physicians to create a collaborative environment founded on mutual respect and trust with innovative ideas for the future," Copping said.

At the same news conference, AMA president Dr. Fredrykka Rinaldi said the bill was an important milestone in improving the relationship between doctors and the province.

However, Rinaldi said the government and physicians have plenty of work ahead to improve health-care services and stabilize doctors' practices.

Under former Premier Jason Kenney, the United Conservative Party government in 2019 granted itself the power to terminate and replace doctors' compensation agreements. It did so by amending the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act.

In February 2020, as doctors resisted the government's attempts to save money by changing how they were compensated, the Kenney government terminated its master agreement with the medical association and imposed a new contract without consultation.

The AMA then filed a $255-million lawsuit against the province for allegedly breaching their charter rights and preventing their ability to strike.

Rinaldi said Monday the association will drop the lawsuit once the legislation takes effect, and will not seek to reclaim legal costs from the province.

The AMA says it will not seek legal costs from the province if it drops its suit. The organization would not disclose how much it has spent on the suit.

CBC News has asked the province how much it has spent defending the suit and has not yet received a reply.

Copping refused to say whether he regretted the approach his government took with doctors, which critics have said was unnecessarily combative and potentially drove some physicians to leave the province.

"That was a decision that was made at that time, and it was a very different time," Copping said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic added unexpected strain to the health-care system and workers.

Building a new agreement with doctors

After rejecting a previous offer in 2021, Alberta doctors voted to accept a new, four-year contract with the province in September. It includes a modest pay rate increases, particularly for specialists under pressure, such as family doctors.

The government and AMA agreed to strike committees to deal with other unresolved issues.The government also committed to investing more money into rural physician recruitment programs.

As part of that new agreement, the government agreed to give up its power to unilaterally toss out agreements inked with doctors. The AMA said when that bill became law, it would withdraw its lawsuit.

One of the parts of the 2020 agreement doctors said was problematic was a daily cap on the number of visits a doctor could be fully paid for per day.

Last month, the government announced it would temporarily remove a daily cap on the number of patient visits doctors could be paid for each day.

Physicians said the cap was severely limiting patients' access to care while demand was surging.

Repeating pattern, says expert

University of Alberta political science professor John Church, who studies the politics of health care in the province, says repealing the law is a good start for the government to repair the relationship.

However, he said there are outstanding issues of fair compensation for all of doctors' work, and a lack of recognition from the government that doctors bore the brunt of abuse from pandemic deniers and people against vaccinations.

He sees the UCP government's aggressive stance, and ultimate capitulation, as part of a repeating pattern in Alberta politics, where the government attempts to rein in physician costs and then loses to powerful lobby that has the public's support.

Governments serious about reducing health spending would pour more resources into preventative and primary care to keep people out of hospitals and emergency rooms, Church said.