Alberta gives doctors go ahead to see patients virtually

The Alberta government says it is making it easier for doctors to provide care online and over the phone.

In response to physicians’ concerns, the government has nearly doubled the amount family doctors can charge forvirtual visits that last longer than 10 minutes.

“Virtual care codes will facilitate patient care while making it possible to follow public health guidelines of maintaining social distance and self-isolation,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday in a new release.

Family doctors can now charge $38 for a longer video or phone appointment with a patient, up from $20 per appointment. There’s no daily limit to the number of virtual appointments doctors can hold. The changes are retroactive to March 17.

It’s the same amount a family doctor is paid if they see a patient face-to-face.

The new codes apply not only to COVID-19 care but to all physical and mental health needs of patients, Dr. Christine P. Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said in a government news release Monday.

“These codes represent an important step towards ensuring the viability of physicians’ practices and supporting the thousands of Albertans they employ,” Molnar said in the release.

Doctors had raised concerns that under the old billing rate, their practices may not be viable if most appointments were held on the phone or through videoconferencing during the coronavirus pandemic.

The changes will add physician billing codes for patient visits, consultations, and mental health services provided over the phone or through secure video conference.

Doctors will still see patients in person where appropriate, according to the government.

NDP health critic David Shepherd said Monday the change was welcome, but too slow in coming.

“That unfortunately took weeks of doctors begging for that change,” Shepherd said. “I was talking with doctors weeks ago who were raising this concern. So, we’re happy the government has finally heard them and is taking action on this today.”

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