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UCP launches blitzkrieg on physicians as health care in Alberta returns to its normal state of chaos

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Image: Government of Alberta/YouTube

If you've been operating under the misapprehension the United Conservative party is just the latest version of the Progressive Conservative party that ran Alberta from 1971 to 2015, yesterday's blitzkrieg attack on the province's 11,000 physicians should disabuse you of that notion.

No, this crowd is unique in the history of Alberta and Canada. They will pick a fight with pretty much anyone except the oil industry and the consequences be damned.

Yesterday they picked a big one with the province's doctors, a group that, until yesterday, presumably confidently believed they were influential, respected and very well connected. I'd be astonished if the vast majority of Alberta's physicians didn't vote for Jason Kenney and the UCP in last April's provincial election.

Well, the doctors and their powerful Alberta Medical Association, which bargains collectively and historically successfully for their compensation, are reeling today after being kicked to the curb in 44 words by Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

Those words, in the traditional form of a cabinet order: "The Lieutenant Governor in Council, effective February 20, 2020, terminates the agreement between Her Majesty in Right of Alberta, as represented by the Minister of Health, and the Alberta Medical Association (C.M.A. Alberta Division) made effective April 1, 2011, as amended from time to time."

In other words, the agreement that's worked pretty well for the docs for almost a decade, the latest version of which hadn't yet expired, is about to disappear -- poof! The UCP will impose new rules on April Fools' Day.

The government and the docs had been bargaining for an extension of the agreement since November, and the AMA wouldn't knuckle under, so the UCP will do to its well-heeled members what the federal government used to do to the posties or Air Canada's unions whenever they started to get uppity. The doctors will see their fee structure cut, and if they don't like it the government seems to think they can move to another province. The biggest changes are listed in the government's press release, albeit in the murky language of bureaucracy.

The doctors were feeling betrayed yesterday. By tomorrow they will be furious. It will be interesting to see what they do next.

In a statement that had the look of being hastily cobbled together, AMA president Christine Molnar called the sudden move "a sad day for health care."

"This fundamentally goes against a belief that Albertans hold in common: the idea that one should stand by their contracts and live up to their word. Honouring agreements with health care workers is sacrosanct in Alberta. …" Well, apparently not to everyone in Alberta.

"The AMA made several offers and significant moves throughout the negotiating process," her statement continued. "We offered substantial short-term savings, worth over three per cent -- which equates to over $150 million in savings a year. We appreciate that there was still a way to go, but we had informed the minister that we were going to put another offer forward tomorrow. At the same time, we indicated that we would be suggesting a movement to arbitration."

She mused that the government likely pulled the plug on arbitration because it knew it would lose. And she concluded with a stark warning: "Moving forward will be difficult and I am genuinely concerned for patients." (Emphasis added.)

Molnar vowed to media to challenge the government's action in court.

But for all its talk about blockades and pipelines, this government doesn't really care about that rule of law stuff -- that's for the rest of us. They know the courts move at a glacial pace and they can go ahead and defy the law and the Constitution to crush their opponents long before there is any legal relief.

Of course, there's nothing new about Alberta Conservatives causing chaos in health care -- it's pretty much been standard operating procedure around these parts since Ralph Klein got his hands on the levers of power back in 1992.

But you never really got the feeling the PCs wanted it that way. They just couldn't seem to figure out how to square their shrinking-government philosophy with the complexities of running a modern medical system for several million people. So they either blundered along or muddled through, depending on the personality of the health minister of the day.

If a Conservative health minister ever got in too much trouble, there was always that old smoothie Gene Zwozdesky to be sent in to pour oil on the troubled waters.

Other than Zwozdesky's short stints in the job, about the only time in the past three decades the health-care system hasn't seemed to be in utter chaos was during the four years after the 2015 election while the NDP was in charge and health care was the responsibility of the capable Sarah Hoffman.

Well, the NDP has been "fired," as the UCP likes to say, Zwozdesky has passed on and these new guys don't give a hang. They seem pretty confident that whomever they outrage, the oil industry can buy them another election victory.

Still, if they're angry enough, the doctors could turn out to be a formidable foe.

As for patients, they're just going to have to share the pain. You'd almost think this government wanted to punish the whole province for its apostasy in 2015.

Warning to snowbirds: Your travel insurance needs just went increased!

While all the excitement yesterday was focused on the government's fight with the docs, the UCP was were also making changes to out-of-country health care coverage that will cost travellers -- especially snowbirds, another group that likely voted heavily for the UCP last year.

So, also on April 1, the province will stop covering "elective, non-urgent health services and routine lab tests." How do they define non-urgent and routine? I asked, and they didn't answer, so I can't help you with that one.

The change is expected to save about $1 million, the government's news release said -- about what it costs to run the "energy war room" for 12 days.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/YouTube

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