Alberta doctors disappointed after $75-million funding flip flop

WATCH ABOVE:  It was a health care cut the province said would be cancelled, but Global News has learned a $75-million rollback for primary care will stand. Global’s Heather Yourex reports.

CALGARY – Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman says she never intended to mislead anyone, but last month’s comments to a number of media outlets–including Global News–have left an Alberta doctors group feeling disappointed and deceived.

“I was told that the media misinterpreted the intent,” said Dr. Philip van der Merwe, co-chair of Alberta’s Primary Care Network executive.

Last March, Premier Jim Prentice’s government announced plans to cut funding to Alberta’s 40 primary care networks (PCNs).  The cut clawed back  $75 million in provincial funding and called on PCNs to use reserve fund money to make up the difference. The cut was part of a budget that never passed and a new NDP government swept to power in the spring. Last month, Hoffman said she believed cutting primary care funding was wrong.

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“The previous government was planning on making them spend all their surplus this year to offset their base allocation, basically cutting $75 million from PCNs, and we knew that wasn’t right,”  Hoffman said.

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Global News then asked if that meant Alberta Health was cancelling the planned cut, and Hoffman said, it did.

“That’s right,” she said. “And we’re able to do that because we invested $500 million through the interim supply bill, and moving forward, we’re having conversations with the PCNs to ensure that we don’t have massive reserves, but also we don’t have chaos and instability.”

Dr. van der Merwe says the PCN executive was happy to read money would be restored, but the next time he spoke to Alberta Health, he heard a different story.

“What I learned subsequently in speaking to senior bureaucrat at Alberta Health is that, in fact, $75 million has not been put back into the budget.”

Hoffman maintains her message has always been clear. In a letter to Dr. van der Merwe dated June 23 (read below for the full letter), Hoffman said PCNs would be authorized to dip into their reserves to maintain current service levels. When she spoke to media Tuesday, Hoffman said final budget decisions have not yet been made.

“At this point we’re doing a financial review, we’re allowing (PCNs) to use their reserves, and in the fall we’ll debate a wholesome budget.”

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There are 42 PCNs in Alberta, serving more than 3.2 million patients. Until last spring’s budget cut, PCNs have been sharing around $200 million in funding per year, though not all the money has been used. PCNs currently have a reserve fund that is estimated to be between $75 to $90 million.  Alberta Health is currently auditing 12 of the province’s PCNs in order to determine how much funding the system will require moving forward.

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