Doctors, Alberta government fail to meet contract deadline

The Alberta Medical Association and the province have failed to finalize a new agreement for Alberta’s 6,500 full-time physicians, officials confirmed Friday.

Alberta Health and Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky said at a news conference the government offered as much as it could to boost the “already lucrative” program for Alberta physicians.

“It is with some deep degree of disappointment that I inform you that we were not able to reach a new agreement by midnight (Thursday), which was the term set out in the agreement in principle,” Zwozdesky said.

“On a more optimistic note, negotiations will continue and I want to assure Albertans that medically insured services will continue to be provided and physicians need to be assured that payment to them will still be continued, regardless.”

The AMA’s board of directors unanimously rejected a proposal this week to extend a three-month agreement in principle beyond its Thursday deadline. The three-month interim deal was intended to become the basis for a new agreement and filled a gap after the doctors’ past eight-year deal expired on March 31.

The three-month agreement was signed by the AMA, the province and Alberta Health Services and gave the parties until midnight June 30 to hash out their differences.

It froze fee increases for two years, provided a cost-of-living increase in the third year and would have established four task forces related to primary care, physician engagement, specialist care and a new physician compensation model, Zwozdesky said.

There is no agreement to replace it, so the government will extend the benefits and compensation physicians received in 2010-11 for the next 12 months.

“We’ll get back to the table and, over the next year, try and hammer out a new deal,” Zwozdesky said. “We are going to move ahead with some of the improvements (in the three-month dead) … We are going to establish some type of primary care strategic work group regardless … and we’re going to do that almost immediately.”

Part of the impasse in negotiations was related to doctors wanting “veto-type powers” that could have left the province on the hook for increased spending, Zwozdesky said.

“We needed to exercise some control over the dollars on behalf of taxpayers.”

The AMA was prepared to accept two years of frozen fees followed by a cost-of-living increase, Zwozdesky said, “but only on the understanding that they would be receiving something for that.”

AMA president Dr. P.J. White was not available to comment Friday.

However, in a letter to members on the AMA’s website, White said the parties couldn’t agree on the specifics of how to transition from one agreement to the next, how to share decision-making powers and resolve differences, and how proposals related to access, quality and productivity would move ahead.

“So, we are back to square one,” White wrote.

“Despite best efforts by all three parties, we were unsuccessful in achieving a new master agreement. I must acknowledge, however, the involvement and commitment that Health and Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky brought to the process.”

The relationship between the AMA and provincial leaders has been deteriorating in recent months after allegations surfaced that physicians were being intimidated for speaking out on behalf of patients. That prompted calls for a public inquiry.

In April, Premier Ed Stelmach held an urgent meeting with the AMA president in a bid to heal the unprecedented fractured relationship.

White said at the time: “The level of anger of the profession right now is the worst that I’ve seen in the 22 years that I’ve been in Canada.”

He added that doctors were further annoyed when they learned Alberta Union of Provincial Employees had won a tentative agreement that delivered lump-sum payments followed by a salary increase in 2012 for 21,000 civil servants.

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