Alberta’s health minister announced changes Friday afternoon he says will improve health-care services offered in rural Alberta.
Tyler Shandro said the province will spend $81 million this year to address rural physician recruitment and retention through a number of programs.
“This is an action plan that has six different parts to it,” Shandro said.
The $60,000 cap on the Rural and Remote Northern Program will be lifted, effective immediately. The RRNP provides incentives to physicians who live and practice in rural and northern communities.
Shandro said rural physicians will be permanently exempt from overhead changes announced earlier this year when working in a hospital. The same changes will be paused for urban physicians while Alberta Health Services completes a review on the program.
“I’ve heard from my colleagues, from rural physicians, as well as from rural leaders all across the province, that this policy forces physicians and hospitals to make choices that reduce access,” Shandro said.
“This was never our intention.”
On-call rates for all rural doctors will range from $20 per hour to $23 per hour, which the government said will increase payments to more than 1,500 physicians who are on call in rural Alberta.
Medical liability rates for all rural physicians will be frozen at $1,000. Rates for all other urban physicians will range from $1,200 to a maximum of $4,000.
Shandro also announced that $6 million will be spent to pay for schooling costs of 20 medical students over the next three years. This move is meant to be an incentive to young people from rural communities to practice at home after finishing medical school.
The government also announced Friday it has appointed clinical researcher Dr. Lee Green from the University of Alberta’s department of family medicine to engage with rural physicians on how to improve health care in their communities.
The health minister’s announcement came after doctors from several rural Alberta communities voiced concerns in recent weeks about the government’s move to cancel a master agreement with doctors and impose billing changes that physicians said threaten the viability of their practices, especially those outside big cities.
David Shepherd, health critic for the Opposition NDP, said he believes Shandro has permanently lost the trust of health professionals in the province.
“[He] knifed rural Albertans and our rural doctors in the back, and now he’s offering them a Band-Aid,” Shepherd said.
A group speaking for Alberta’s rural doctors issued a statement that also addressed the issue of trust.
“We suspect these politically expedient announcements and partial rollbacks will not be enough for most physicians faced with the need to reduce hospital services in July, since we know they can be reversed again at any time,” the Rural Sustainability Group said.
“Albertans know we cannot trust this government to uphold its word or its contracts.”
The government had previously rolled back some of the changes, including changes to extra payments, called complex modifiers, for longer patient visits.
In recent weeks, doctors from clinics in dozens of communities across Alberta have announced they are withdrawing or reducing services because of the financial challenges posted to them by fee changes unilaterally imposed by Shandro in March.
The Alberta Medical Association, which represents physicians, has filed a lawsuit against the government in which it demands fair and reasonable negotiations toward an agreement and the right to arbitration.
–With files from The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett