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Tense negotiations ahead as UCP searches for health-care system savings

Alberta Matters: Province tries to find savings; front-line workers feel slammed
WATCH ABOVE: A showdown is shaping up between the province and its healthcare workers. A review of Alberta Health Services shows savings can be found but those on the front lines say they're feeling overworked and ignored. Tom Vernon has this Alberta Matters story.

Contract talks between the Alberta government and the unions representing nurses and physicians have gotten off to a rocky start.

Nurses have publicly mused about job action, and voluntary mediation with the Alberta Medical Association failed to find a resolution.

“The Government of Alberta is spending more than ever before on our public health-care system and we will maintain current spending,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a statement after mediation with doctors proved unsuccessful.

“Our government will take this time to carefully consider all options at our disposal,” the statement added.

READ MORE: Shandro calls mediation with the Alberta Medical Association ‘unsuccessful,’ says ‘all options’ now being considered

The UCP government is acting on a pair of reports calling for spending restraint in the health-care system: the MacKinnon Panel Report, delivered to the government in September, and the EY review of Alberta Health Services, which was released a few weeks ago. Both recommended salaries be looked at.

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Salaries and benefits make up about 54 per cent of AHS’ total expenses.

“AHS should work with the unions and government to remove or revise collective agreement provisions that impede sustainability without providing any patient benefit,” reads the first recommendation in the report by EY.

Tense negotiations ahead as Kenney government searches for health-care system savings
Tense negotiations ahead as Kenney government searches for health-care system savings

The report found that compared to the Canadian average, registered nurses in Alberta make 7.2 per cent more than the Canadian average, licensed practical nurses are paid 5.5 per cent higher wages and health-care assistants receive 6.8 per cent more. Members of HSAA and AUPE-GSS are also paid a premium over the national average.

The provincial government has made it clear no new money is being made available for wage increases in the provincial budget, drawing a line in the sand for negotiations on new collective bargaining agreements.

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READ MORE: Alberta nurses union says rollback talk from province is a ‘powder keg’

“Some of our members are suggesting that, in fact, we’re being goaded into striking,” said David Harrigan, labour director with the United Nurses of Alberta.

Harrigan is on the negotiating team for the nurses and says among the proposals from the UCP government in negotiations is eliminating benefits for some part-time employees, which is one of the recommendations in the EY report.

“For the largest health-care employer in the country to say, ‘We don’t want to provide health-care benefits,’ I mean, there’s no greater way to say to employees, ‘We don’t value you,'” he said.

For physicians, the EY report specifically targeted what Alberta radiologists are billing.

“In 2014-15, the average radiologist in Alberta billed $1.4 million, versus $872,000 for the average radiologist in Ontario, representing a 59 per cent difference,” the report finds.

“In alignment with Alberta Health physician compensation negotiations and budget management initiatives, AHS should address radiology compensation and contracts,” reads recommendation No. 9.

In a letter to AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu, the president of the Alberta Society of Radiologists — Dr. Robert Davies — wrote that this figure doesn’t take into account the overhead and other expenses paid by radiologists in Alberta. He also wrote that since the number is five years old, it doesn’t reflect a recent 12 per cent fee cut.

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“Whenever we see such a large gap between the quality of the evidence provided and the swagger of the conclusions, we become concerned that this was driven by a predetermined agenda somewhere, rather than an objective and unbiased analysis,” his letter reads.

“We would please ask that you approach EY’s findings with skepticism and their recommendations with caution as they pertain to radiologists and the patients we serve.”

Read below: A copy of a letter sent to AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu by the president of the Alberta Society of Radiologists.