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Coronavirus: Community physicians concerned as Alberta government stops providing PPE

Physicians shocked as Alberta government stops supplying PPE to family doctors
WATCH ABOVE: For months, Alberta Health Services has been providing PPE such as masks, gloves and coveralls to doctors across the province free-of-charge. But effective this week, many physicians will have to pay for them. Sarah Ryan explains.

Community physicians say they were shocked by the Alberta government’s decision to stop distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to them.

“I don’t want to get sick. I’m like everyone else. I want to protect myself and my family.

“I don’t want to potentially spread disease to patients and I want to protect my staff,” Dr. Donald Wilson said.

Wilson is a family doctor, and community president of the Edmonton Medical Zone Staff Association.

READ MORE: Edmonton doctors group raises concern about Alberta’s coronavirus preparedness

Over the last few months, Alberta Health was sourcing and supplying PPE — like masks and gloves — for healthcare professionals in the community at no cost.

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But on Monday, it was announced that was changing.

Alberta announces changes to PPE distribution in the province
Alberta announces changes to PPE distribution in the province

“This was just another example, I think, of unnecessary stress on community physicians and unfair stress on community physicians, because if a person works for AHS, they actually have this paid for,” Wilson explained.

The email stated doctors could purchase PPE from the AHS stockpile until the end of June, but after that, they’d be on their own to source things like face shields, hand sanitizer, thermometers and disinfectant wipes.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Alberta changes PPE distribution, businesses must obtain own masks after June 30

“If we run out of personal protective equipment and can’t buy it at a cost that – quite honestly, we’ll struggle to pay for — then quite simply, in order to follow the law of the province, we could actually have to shut our doors,” Wilson said.

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Alberta health minister responds to criticism of PPE supply for front-line workers
Alberta health minister responds to criticism of PPE supply for front-line workers

The Alberta Medical Association says the move impacts about 80 per cent of healthcare providers.

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“That includes primary care, family doctors, as well as specialty care like diagnostic imaging, obstetrics, cardiology, all kinds of specialists,” said AMA president Dr. Christine Molnar.

The cost of PPE is high, said Molnar, especially compared to what doctors are being compensated.

“They’re paid $40 for a visit. We know that the PPE for one person, it will be $16-17.

“If the doctor needs a second person in the room, that will be $32-34 out of a $40 fee just for PPE, no other overhead,” she said.

READ MORE: Group of Alberta doctors writes open letter about ‘substandard,’ ‘inadequate’ PPE masks

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Doctors cannot pass those costs on to their patients, like some dentists and hair salons do.

“Business entities can transfer those costs to the people that are purchasing a service. While physicians are not selling a service, they provide a publicly funded service.”

Molnar said impacted doctors are on the frontline of the pandemic. When it comes to patients in Calgary with COVID-19, Molnar said 96 per cent of their care was administered through community resources.

On a price list laid out by the government online, a procedural masks costs $1.29, gloves cost 12 cents, disposable coveralls cost $6.81 and a face shield costs $7.86.

In a statement, Timothy Gerwqig, press secretary to Alberta’s minister of Municipal Affairs, said: “As part of the COVID-19 pandemic response, government has helped meet an immediate need by providing PPE to non-AHS businesses and organizations, including independent physicians.

“This was unique to Alberta, as other provinces were not providing this service.”

He added that PPE is now more readily available and that the UCP “is now prioritizing the supply of critical PPE to those at the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19. This includes hospital workers, first responders, disability agencies, seniors care facilities, those working in publicly-funded or contracted homeless shelters, and others.”

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Coronavirus outbreak: Ford thanks Alberta for donating extra PPE
Coronavirus outbreak: Ford thanks Alberta for donating extra PPE

Gerwig also pointed out that “before the pandemic, private doctors’ offices would have had to source their own supplies.”

Molnar said while that’s true, PPE was rarely needed pre-pandemic. She’s hopeful the province will change its mind.

“We are looking for a solution to this because our main interest is that Albertans get the care they need, and that primarily occurs in the community,” she said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Alberta government asks non-AHS staff needing PPE to request via email

Both Molnar and Wilson point out that attempting to save money by not funding PPE could increase expenses elsewhere in the system.

“If patients can’t see their family doctors and community specialists, they’re going to end up in the emergency room,” Wilson said.

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“Emergency rooms are very expensive ways of caring for patients.”

Alberta announces changes to PPE distribution in the province
Alberta announces changes to PPE distribution in the province