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Rural Alberta clinic withdraws hospital services after physician pay changes during pandemic

Doctors in rural Alberta say they’re forced to make hard decisions under new funding model
WATCH: Some doctors in rural Alberta say they’re being forced to make tough decisions. As Adam Toy reports, they’re figuring out how to treat their patients under the province’s new funding model.

Doctors at the Moose and Squirrel Medical Clinic in Sundre, Alta., have had to make a tough decision on how to best care for their clients.

“We’ve had to withdraw our obstetrical care in the [Sundre] hospital,” Dr. Mark Diaz told Global News. “And we’ve also announced we’ll also withdraw our emergency and hospital acute care services in the hospital as well.”

It’s an adjustment to a “new normal” under the Alberta government’s new physician funding framework that came into effect on March 31.

READ MORE: Alberta government ends master agreement with doctors; new rules coming April 1

The clinic’s eight doctors made the announcement Thursday night on a social media video.

“We have come to the conclusion that the only way we can continue to be in the [Sundrie] community as your medical clinic… and to continue to look after all of you, is to give up that part of our practice that we can no longer afford to do,” Dr. Michelle Warren said in the announcement.
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Their decision means the number of doctors providing obstetrics, acute and emergency services at Sundre Hospital has been cut by more than half.

“I think docs are fed up, like I am,” Dr. Tobias Gelber, a Pincher Creek physician and Alberta Medical Association board member, told Global News.

“I feel that Sundre has ignited something that may explode in terms of withdrawal of care.”

Gelber noted that doctors in Stettler have decided on similar withdrawals.

At the end of March, the UCP implemented a new funding framework for physicians, part of an election promise to maintain current health care funding levels. It also relented on the so-called complex modifiers, fees doctors charge the province to be able to see patients with complex needs.

READ MORE: Alberta government halts changes to doctors’ pay for complex modifiers

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a statement to Global News he has seen the video from Sundre and is looking to replace the doctors at the hospital.

“[T]here will be no reductions or cuts to the Sundre Hospital or to other health care services that Sundre residents use and expect,” Shandro said in an emailed statement. “If these physicians chose to voluntarily give up their privileges, we will immediately bring in replacement physicians to provide those services. The Government of Alberta will also begin exploring permanent solutions to augment and stabilize physician services in Sundre over the longer term.”
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The decision from the doctors at Moose and Squirrel comes at a time when the Sundre medical community is preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic to reach the small Alberta town.

“It’s been a really long month — a lot of sleepless nights where my colleagues and staff at the clinic, my colleagues at the hospital, where we’re all preparing,” Diaz said. “We’re all doing our best to prepare a community for this wave of sick patients, unfortunately.

“We are planning for the worst-case scenario.”