Alberta health minister rolls back some changes to rural doctor compensation

The Alberta government is making concessions on how rural physicians are compensated in a bid to keep them from leaving or giving up their hospital privileges in communities across the province. 

On Friday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced measures aimed at preventing rural physicians, who all practice in constituencies represented by United Conservative MLAs, from leaving the community or ceasing to work in rural hospitals.

Physicians say changes to their compensation, which were unilaterally imposed on them as of March 31, will cut their pay dramatically. The cuts have been particularly acute in rural Alberta, where doctors practice in clinics and in hospital emergency rooms and obstetrics.

Under the changes announced by Shandro, the province will continue to subsidize the medical liability insurance required by doctors to practice in high-risk specialties like obstetrics and increase rural on-call rates from $20 per hour to $23 per hour. On-call rates for rural physicians with special skills will increase from $11 to $20 an hour. 

A change that took effect March 31 prevented rural physicians from billing for overhead costs when they are working in a hospital. 

Shandro said that change is being put on hold for urban physicians and abolished for their rural counterparts.

“Many rural physicians organize their business model around practising in hospital and clinics and rural hospitals, especially their emergency departments, work differently than in cities,” the minister said during his news conference. 

“They depend on rural physicians for coverage and we need to maintain that coverage in Alberta.” 

The province is also removing the $60,000 cap on the Rural and Remote Northern Program, which provides incentives for doctors to practice in those areas. 

Overhead costs 

Shandro and Alberta’s physicians have been battling over compensation and other issues.

In February, after contract talks failed, the government cancelled a master agreement between the province and the Alberta Medical Association (AMA).

The province imposed billing changes that physicians say threaten the viability of their practices.

Most Alberta doctors work on a fee-for-service model and pay for staff and clinic overhead out of those earnings

The AMA has filed a lawsuit against the government demanding fair and reasonable negotiations toward an agreement and the right to arbitration.

Physicians in a number of communities, including Lac La Biche, Stettler, Sundre and Pincher Creek, have recently served notice they will withdraw hospital services due to the funding changes. 

Shandro was joined at the news conference by MLAs Tany Yao, Nate Horner and Joseph Schow.

Yao, who represents Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, chairs the government’s rural caucus for northern Alberta. Horner, MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, chairs the rural caucus for southern Alberta. Schow represents the riding of Cardston-Siksika.

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