The day the doctors walked

·4 min read

It was a standoff between the province and its doctors that led to something rarely seen in this country.

On Jan. 8, 2001, most of New Brunswick's family doctors shut down their offices, going on strike in an effort to get the Bernard Lord government to increase doctors' fees.

And Saint John physician Mike Simon, then the president of the family doctor section of the New Brunswick Medical Society, found himself right in the middle of it.

"I like to call it the only successful physicians' strike in Canadian history," Simon recalled in an interview from his office this week.

It wasn't a strike in the traditional sense. There were no picket lines, no demonstrations, and doctors still handled emergency cases.

Instead, it was a symbolic move.

CBC
CBC

It came after months of negotiations by the New Brunswick Medical Society to renegotiate how much doctors could charge for services.

But Simon said it was really the result of years of frustration for the province's family doctors.

In the 1990s, health-care policy changed country-wide in Canada.

Governments began cutting back on the number of seats funded in medical schools, under the belief that fewer doctors would be needed in the coming years.

By the time the end of the century rolled around, it was clear that was a mistake.

Combine that with a fee structure in New Brunswick that hadn't been changed in years and, Simon said, you had a recipe for disaster.

'A real crisis'

He said family doctors felt overworked and underpaid.

"It was a real crisis," Simon said, "Many docs [in Saint John] were working ER shifts at night to make ends meet."

He said patients were being deeply affected too, as it became harder to recruit new doctors.

"I couldn't shop at Christmastime because there would be so many people asking me if I was taking patients," Simon said.

Earlier, in his role as head of the family physician sector, Simon had called a meeting to talk about the issues.

On a sunny June day, he was surprised to walk into a meeting room in Fredericton to find more than 200 family doctors from all across the province.

"You call a meeting, you never get more than five docs together in a room," he said with a laugh.

CBC
CBC

According to the government of the day, the average New Brunswick doctor made $180,000 a year. But that number included all doctors, not just GPs.

Many family physicians were likely on the low side of that number, and still had to pay overhead with their earnings.

Simon said that would likely be, at best, 40 to 50 per cent or more.

Dr. Graeme Stewart had just moved his family practice to Sackville, from neighbouring Nova Scotia.

In an interview with CBC News at the time, he said fees in Nova Scotia were substantially higher, where fees had been renegotiated in the 1990s.

"Just to give you an example, a hospital visit for a patient who's admitted for pneumonia or a urinary tract infection, in New Brunswick right now I get $12.60 for a visit like that, whereas in Nova Scotia, at the present time I'd be paid $25 for the same visit," Stewart said.

An exodus approaching?

Doctors calculated it would take a 30 per cent increase to bring New Brunswick in line with Nova Scotia.

Simon said doctors started with smaller work actions, such as holding paperless days, when physicians refused to fill out forms for patients.

They invited recruiters from Ontario to visit, to put pressure on the province.

He said one recruiter from a southern region of that province told him they had enough vacancies to take all of New Brunswick's family physicians.

In the end, the doctors agreed some form of job action was needed, despite reluctance from some members.

For its part, the Progressive Conservative government agreed that the fees were too low and something had to be done.

But it was offering a 12 per cent increase on the average salary, or about $17,000.

Dr. Dennis Furlong was health minister at the time.

On the morning of Jan. 8, he took the opportunity on CBC's Information Morning in Moncton to plead with doctors not to strike.

"I would urge the physicians of New Brunswick who can to continue their work while these negotiations are going on to give us an opportunity to get by this impasse."

But that afternoon, the doctors walked.

Simon said most family physicians closed their offices.

Forced the hand

They remained closed for three days.

In the end, the province agreed to arbitration, something it had resisted all along.

Mike Simon believes the job action, and the public support shown for doctors, forced the province's hand.

And while New Brunswick didn't reach parity with Nova Scotia, it got close, which likely averted an even bigger disaster.

"We didn't have a mass exodus of doctors, which was threatened."

It also ended Simon's appetite for dabbling in the politics of his profession.

"I'd had enough, and after that I really backed away from the political side of it."