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Alberta health minister tables legislation to reverse government power to scrap doctor contracts

The move was promised as part of a four-year compensation agreement with the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) ratified in September.

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More than two years after Alberta’s UCP government changed the law to be able to unilaterally scrap a physician funding contract, it took steps in the legislature Monday to reverse that power.

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Health Minister Jason Copping introduced the promised Bill 4, the Alberta Health Care Insurance Amendment Act, 2022, which if passed will repeal the section of the health care insurance law that allows the province to scrap its master agreement with doctors — in February 2020.

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The move was promised as part of a four-year compensation agreement with the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) ratified in September. In turn, the AMA agreed to drop its lawsuit against the government without seeking legal costs. The $255 million in damages and acknowledgments the province’s actions violated the charter.

The government did not immediately provide an estimate of how much that legal fight cost taxpayers.

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At a news conference Monday, Copping said the legislation is no longer required.

“This legislation is another step in our relationship with Alberta’s physicians to create a collaborative environment founded on mutual respect and trust with innovative ideas for the future,” said Copping. When asked if it was a mistake to change the health care insurance law in the first place, Copping emphasized that it was important to move past that.

“That was a decision that was made at that time. It was a very different time,” said Copping. When asked why the government didn’t back down earlier, in particular once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and created extra pressure on health-care providers, Copping said the change in Monday’s bill has been part of discussions with the AMA for a long time.

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“I’m very pleased with this agreement, but it took us some time to actually get there, but that was time quite frankly, well spent,” he said.

Dr. Fredrykka Rinaldi, president of the AMA, said at the news conference the introduction of Bill 4 was an important step in rebuilding the relationship between the government and doctors.

“This is another important milestone on the road forward with the agreement,” she said. Rinaldi did not immediately disclose how much the lawsuit cost the AMA.

The will see physician compensation increase by an average of four per cent over the next four years, including a lump sum one per cent increase as a “recognition payment” for work over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Copping noted that the deal puts a strong priority on primary health care, including a sliding scale of rate increases, with the highest increases for family physicians at 5.2 per cent.

An additional $252 million in spending will go toward initiatives to help bring doctors to underserved areas, and primary care networks are slated to get $40 million lump-sum increases over the first two years of the deal.

The government said Monday it has started to implement various commitments in the agreement, including rescinding the daily visit cap, announced Nov. 21, and distributing the one-per-cent rate increase.

While government officials said the latest agreement will keep Alberta doctors “among” the highest paid in Canada, they were unable to project how the province will rank in 2022.

According to data from the , in 2020-21 Alberta physicians averaged a gross clinical payment per physician of $367,000, above the and second only to Prince Edward Island’s gross average of over $405,000 — although average payments vary significantly by specialty.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

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