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‘What comes next should have you petrified:’ Lethbridge physicians pen letter over provincial funding woes

Lethbridge physicians pen letter over provincial funding woes
WATCH ABOVE: A group of southern Alberta doctors has written an open letter to express their concerns about recent changes to Alberta’s health-care system. Eloise Therien reports.

A group of concerned physicians in Lethbridge have written a four-page letter in lieu of a previously-planned town hall, outlining concerns over funding changes under Alberta’s UCP government.

The group says the coronavirus stood in the way of meeting in-person in the presence of the city and “concerned and engaged” members of the public,  but those with worries still found it important to outline their opinion in writing.

The letter outlines a variety of concerns.

“We are in troubling times,” it reads. “Both you as a community and we as physicians, are feeling uncertain, unsettled and considerably frightened.”

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

The document, titled “Pandemic Trumps Shandemic: This Letter is in Lieu of the Lethbridge Physician Town Hall on Health Care” was signed by 15 individual doctors in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, and the staff of two clinics in Lethbridge.

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Alberta government ends master agreement with doctors
Alberta government ends master agreement with doctors

Those who took part in the letter say the title reflects the level of concern over the COVID-19 health crisis, while still acknowledging the pressing funding concerns.

“An overwhelming public health crisis has taken precedence… placing the funding crisis appropriately in the background,” it says.

It continues on, describing the “abrupt termination” of the physician master agreement in February 2020, and the implementation of a new framework “without expert physician involvement”.

READ MORE: Alberta doctors ask for health-care changes to be halted amid COVID-19 in open letter to Kenney government

Dr. Eadaoin Ni Choileain, a family physician at Bigelow Fowler Clinic South in Lethbridge, says she is very worried about what restrictions on patient numbers will mean for the vulnerable population in the city.

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“People without a family doctor here in town — of which there are many — are never going to be able to get a family doctor here because our lists are full already,” she said. “By signing the letter, I was hoping that potentially the government could listen.”

Group of Alberta doctors resigning from serving hospital in Lac La Biche
Group of Alberta doctors resigning from serving hospital in Lac La Biche

Outlined in detail in the letter are several specific “immediate repercussions,” including limits placed on daily patient visits, resulting in an increase in volumes at emergency rooms.

“Key palliative care, on call trauma surgery and other critical programs have lost clinical stipends,” the letter also reads.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Lethbridge non-profits adapt to fewer donations, volunteers while fundraisers up in the air

Global News sent the letter to the office of the minister of health, and received the following statement from Steve Buick, Press Secretary:

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“Our government is committed to spending $5.4 billion on physicians this year, the highest level ever. In fact with recent changes we expect to spend even more.

We’ve made major changes to support physicians and patients in the pandemic: cancelled planned changes to complex modifiers, suspended changes to AHS stipends, and created new fee codes to allow physicians to bill unlimited phone or video calls at the same rate as an office visit.

Family doctors in Alberta still available despite COVID-19 pandemic
Family doctors in Alberta still available despite COVID-19 pandemic

Our spending on physicians will remain among the highest in Canada, and our physicians will remain among the highest paid in Canada.

We’re in active discussion with the AMA. Minister Shandro is open to any proposal to support physicians through the COVID-19 emergency.

We have the greatest respect for the work of physicians in Lethbridge and across the province, but the personal attacks and political rhetoric in the letter are beneath them. Some of the language in the letter is from Twitter and it should stay there.”

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READ MORE: Group of Alberta doctors resigning from serving hospital in Lac La Biche

For background, the statement adds:

“The claim that changes to time modifiers were only suspended is false. All changes to modifiers were cancelled.

We’ve made no changes that rule out operating after-hours clinics. Physicians can still bill the full rates for up to 50 patients a day, in addition to unlimited phone/video calls.

Patient volumes in all settings are greatly reduced due to the pandemic.

The claim that AHS stipends for trauma on-call and palliative home visits have been cancelled is false. Changes to AHS stipends have been suspended. AHS will work with physicians to ensure appropriate trauma coverage.”