CALGARY — A survey by the Alberta Medical Association suggests more than 40 per cent of the province's physicians have at least considered looking for work elsewhere in Canada.
The group blames the potential exodus on the United Conservative government's announced changes to how doctors are paid.
Some of the measures announced in February were rolled back during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government and the association remain at odds, and Premier Jason Kenney has said compensation needs to be reined in.
The survey found 87 per cent of Alberta doctors were making changes to their practices, including layoffs, reduced hours, early retirement and possibly leaving Alberta.
The medical association is taking the province to court, alleging breaches of charter rights because it was not given access to third- party arbitration.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said it's questionable whether doctors would leave for other provinces, where they would earn far less than under Alberta's funding arrangement.
He said the AMA has never presented a credible proposal to keep physician spending at $5.4 billion annually. Alberta's United Conservative government's filed a statement of defence to the lawsuit this week, arguing the province has engaged with doctors in good faith.
"The AMA needs to stop playing games and start taking the economic crisis facing this province and this country seriously," Shandro said in a statement Friday. "We’re still offering to hold our spending at the highest level in Canada, and, frankly, that commitment is looking more generous by the day, considering the fiscal situation in this province and this country."
The government is looking into publicizing physician compensation, as it does for other public servants, he added.
Kenney, asked by reporters Friday about the conflict, said "we are going through a fiscal and economic crisis and everybody needs to be part of the solution.
"In the past five years, the average private sector after-tax income has declined by 10 per cent. Most people in the government sector have been frozen over the past five years. But physicians, who are the best compensated people in the public sector, have seen a 23 per cent increase in their compensation over four years.
"That simply is not sustainable."
AMA president Dr. Christine Molnar said she can't blame doctors for wanting to protect their livelihoods and calls the Alberta government's actions "reckless."
"Physicians have reached a breaking point," Molnar said in a release Friday. "I'm deeply troubled by where this is going and what it’s going to mean for medical practices and patients in the coming months."
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said he was troubled, but not shocked, by the survey's results.
"Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro are at war with Alberta doctors: tearing up their contract, cutting their pay, and imposing hundreds of pages of new paperwork in the middle of a public health emergency," the New Democrat said in a statement.
"Kenney and Shandro have smeared Alberta doctors at every turn, suggesting they are lazy, greedy and dishonest. It’s despicable."
The AMA surveyed 1,470 physicians from across Alberta between June 24 and July 3. It says the results are accurate within 2.4 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2020
Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story; a previous version had physician spending at $5.4 million.