A grant program designed under the former NDP government to bring more doctors to rural Manitoba is being eliminated by the Pallister government, CBC News has learned.
The program, established in 2001 and revamped in 2010, gave medical students grants of $12,000 in each of their four years of medical school. It also offered grants to physicians establishing a practice in Manitoba upon graduation.
In return, the graduating students would be required to do six months of service to an under-serviced part of the province upon graduation for each year they received the grant.
The cut will save the provincial government roughly $4.2 million a year.
Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said his government did surveys among doctors that found financial considerations were low on the list of reasons why they wanted to stay in a particular location.
"Money was almost never the motivating factor," he said. "It almost always was how welcome they felt in the community, the services they provided in the community, the kind of practice they had in the community, the ability they had to work with other specialists and their ability to use their skills and training to the full scope of their practice."
An official with Manitoba Health told CBC News that employers said there was a significant time gap between when a student receives a grant and when they are able to provide return of service.
"It can take between five to eight years before a student is qualified to provide services, and there is no guarantee that a student will choose a needed practice area at the end of their training," said the spokesperson in a prepared statement.
Grants for the Northern Remote Family Medicine Program, which helped send doctors to northern Manitoba, will remain in place, Goertzen confirmed.
New strategy in the works: Goertzen
It's still unclear how the program will wind down, but Goertzen said his government will introduce a new strategy that he argues will bring results, unlike the current program.
"We are going to put together a more central, provincial strategy in terms of how do we attract and retain doctors," said Goertzen, who wasn't ready to reveal details.
"We're moving the resources and attention to the things that actually motivate doctors to come and stay in the province."
He couldn't offer a dollar figure for how much will be invested in the new strategy, but said it will be rolled out this fiscal year.
The new strategy would offer a more co-ordinated approach that wouldn't see the rural regional health authorities fighting each other for doctors, he said.
Recruiting more doctors to Manitoba was a central plank in the Progressive Conservatives' platform in the 2016 provincial election.
Rural doctor shortages a problem for years
Rural doctor shortages have been a constant concern in Manitoba. The Killarney-Turtle Mountain municipality, for example, spent $250,000 of its own tax dollars to recruit and hire two international physicians.
Health officials told CBC News that doctor shortages forced the closure of the 28 rural emergency departments in the past for more than a 24-hour period.
Darryl Jackson is the mayor of Souris, Man. He says the doctors in his region seem more concerned about having to work multiple night and weekend shifts than about how much they were paid.
He says plenty of small communities are looking for doctors.
"It doesn't seem to matter who you are listening to, somebody is short a physician. So I am not surprised this has happened. I will be very curious to see what kind of program they would come up with to take its place."
Opposition wants answers
Both the Opposition NDP and Manitoba Liberals said the government needs to reveal how it will replace the program.
The NDP's health critic, Matt Wiebe, said the program offered a leg up to students just starting their careers and helped bring more doctors to rural Manitoba.
"They said over and over again that recruitment of doctors, that retention was a major concern in rural and northern Manitoba," he said.
"What they've done now is taken one tool out of their tool box to encourage those doctors to stay in rural Manitoba and practice there."
Liberal River Heights MLA Jon Gerrard, who is also a medical doctor, said he was surprised to hear about the cut and implored the government to explain what their plan. He argued that the program has been effective and says it has to be a priority.
"What is the replacement? If they are going to cut this, what's next? We should have had this now, instead of all of a sudden knowing there is no plan," said Gerrard.