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Alberta Medical Association files lawsuit against provincial government

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The UCP government is acting on a pair of reports calling for spending restraint in Alberta's health-care system. Tom Vernon has a look at what we can expect going forward.

The Alberta Medical Association (AMA) has filed a lawsuit against the provincial government’s ministry of health.

The AMA cites the termination of its agreement, the government’s conduct during negotiations and Bill 21 as some of the reasons for filing the claim.

The lawsuit also claims that more than $250 million in damages has ensued due to governments’ actions in breaching a contract.

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

Three members of the AMA, Dr. Christine Molnar, the association’s current president, Dr. Paul Boucher, president-elect for the AMA and former president Dr. Alison Clarke, have filed the lawsuit on behalf of all AMA members.

In a statement on Thursday, Molnar said many issues came into play when making the decision to file the lawsuit.

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She said although a constitutional challenge is not what herself or members wanted — especially in the face of a pandemic — Molnar added that it was a necessary step to take at this time.

“We think that we’ve reached an impasse with the government. Our relationship has never been at a lower point, it’s very important that there’s a method to resolve disputes between the government and Alberta physicians.

“It’s unavoidable that there will be disputes, there needs to be a remedy and method to dissolve those disputes and that would be determined by a negotiated agreement, and if that fails, by binding arbitration with a third party, and that is what we’re seeking to achieve.”

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The statement of claim outlined various aggravating factors leading to the lawsuit.

The first claim involved the minister walking away from negotiations on Feb. 20, ultimately terminating the AMA’s agreement with the government.

“In doing so, he violated the charter rights of all Alberta physicians by removing your access to independent third party arbitration,” Molnar said.

The claim states this act takes away AMA members right to “invoke an arbitration process to resolve bargaining disputes.”

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

Another aggravating factor, according to the AMA, is failed negotiations with the government.

On Sep. 25, 2019, the AMA agreed to begin discussions toward achieving a new agreement, including resolving financial matters, between the association and Alberta Health (AH).

The claim stated negotiations took place between AMA and AH throughout the fall of 2019 and into 2020.

During these negotiations, the claim stated that AH acted unfairly, by proposing to remove items from the AMA agreement without justification.

The claim also stated that AH served notice that Physician Support Programs would be eliminated as of April 1, 2021 — despite the fact that AMA had previously consented to begin discussions to achieve new agreements on these programs.

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Alberta government ends master agreement with doctors

AH said it only had a mandate to maintain a certain fixed cost for the provision of physician services and that any cost increases would have to be absorbed within that fixed cost, the claim also stated.

During these negotiations, the AMA stated it tabled 21 different proposals and responses to the AH’s proposals with no mutual outcome. Mediation was then ordered, but both parties agreed it was unsuccessful.

Bill 21, was another issue for AMA members. The claim states that on Dec. 5, 2019, during negotiations, the “Ensuring Fiscal Sustainability Act, 2019” received royal assent and sections related to the minster’s right to terminate the AMA agreement came into force.

The claims states that due to these factors, the government has breached Section 2d of the charter, Section 1e of the Alberta Bill of Rights, International Labour Organization standards and has breached contract.

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As a result of the province’s actions, the claim also states that AMA members have suffered a loss of reputation and loss of income and job security.

READ MORE: Mediator brought in to break logjam in contract talks between doctors and Alberta government

As a decision to file the lawsuit, AMA said it engaged three independent legal firms to review its options, and Lawyer Patrick Nugent is now the AMA’s lead counsel in its case against the government.

Nugent said the lawsuit has been filed for workers to seek fair treatment from the government.

“The government has taken away the right to go to arbitration, so this claim seeks to remedy that by asking a court to determine that the government has breached the charter, and that the government must engage in meaningful good-faith negotiations,” Nugent said.

“AMA members can’t go on strike, so the conduct that the government has engaged in, in this legislation, has undermined AMA’s status as representing physicians.”

The AMA said hopes to reach a negotiated agreement with the government through this lawsuit, but stated patients in the province do not need to worry about the impending claim.

“Of course, patients do not need to worry that it will impact pandemic care, Alberta doctors will be here for them,” Molnar said.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Alberta adds new billing codes for doctors providing virtual care

During a press conference Thursday, when asked about the lawsuit, Premier Jason Kenney commented on physician’s compensation in the province.

“I’m not going to comment on things that are going before the courts, that’s inappropriate,” he said.

“What I will say is that Alberta has the best-compensated physicians in Canada.

“Physician compensation in Alberta has grown by nearly 300 per cent in the past 18 years.”
In response to the lawsuit, press secretary to the minister of health, Steve Buick, said the government was prepared for this outcome — but stands by its actions.
“We exercised our legal right under the previous agreement,” Buick said in a statement to Global News on Thursday.
“The AMA’s legal action is as we have expected. It does not change our decisions.”
Buick said the government intends to continue paying physicians under the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act, as well as move forward with the new funding framework that was announced in February.
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“We’re maintaining our spending on physicians at $5.4-billion, the highest level ever,” he said.
“In fact, we’ll likely spend significantly more due to the decisions we’ve made to support physicians and patients in the pandemic.”