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With COVID-19 in Alberta, Health Minister Tyler Shandro caves to doctors on 'complex billing' battle

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Image: Government of Alberta/YouTube

As Lyndon B. Johnson famously explained, in politics, chicken poop can turn over night into chicken salad.

Those weren't exactly the words used by the late United States senator from Texas, senate majority leader, vice-president and then, in tragic circumstances after November 22, 1963, Democratic party president of the United States. But they're close enough for government work. LBJ was undoubtedly a profound political sage.

Another political sage of that era, Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister of Britain twice in the 1960s and 1970s, observed with equal renown, using terminology safe for quotation marks, that "a week is a long time in politics."

Both political maxims were proved again to have stood the test of time in Alberta yesterday.

As Alberta's health-care professionals brace for battle against the wave of COVID-19 cases now hitting the province, the Kenney government dropped its effort to force Alberta's physicians to swallow an unpopular new billing regime like the political hot potato it had become.

In the humiliating climbdown predicted in this space on March 8, Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government dropped its plan to end the practice of "complex billing" in a way that would have cut revenue for many family physicians as much as 20 per cent over four years.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro, in what must have tasted like ashes in his mouth, was quoted in the government's press release saying that "during these unprecedented times, we want to ensure physicians on the front lines can focus solely on providing patient care.

"We've heard concerns that this change would result in what has been called '10-minute medicine,'" he continued. "While we respectfully disagree with that characterization, we are nevertheless halting this change so that doctors can concentrate on the critical tasks at hand."

The implication, if you wanted see a subtle message in those words, was "we'll be back with this again." Well, whatever it takes to save their pride. They won't. Leastways, they should have now learned what other Conservative governments have learned before in this province, and others. To wit: You can fight the docs, but you can't win.

Christine Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association, graciously agreed to sign onto the government's press release and not do a victory dance in the end zone. "We appreciate the removal of the complex (time) modifier from Alberta Health's physician funding framework," she was quoted saying. "This is a significant step in supporting patients and physicians. There is still work to be done. We will work in any venue to advance patient care and to reach a formal agreement between physicians and Alberta Health."

The key point in the government's surrender was listed in a bullet point in the release: "The first modifier that general practitioners bill for a visit will remain at the 15-minute mark at the current rate of $18.48. Other complex modifiers will remain available at current rates and current time requirements."

Status quo ante bellum, in other words. What the AMA demanded.

A "physician compensation advisory panel" with members from the profession, the health department and the public will be struck to figure out a pay formula that physicians and their collective bargaining organization can live with. Whatever it turns out to be, they'll be able to live with it.

Here endeth the lesson.

Emergency declared, bars closed, pubs still open, go figure …

Twenty-three additional cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Alberta yesterday, bringing the tally to 97. Today it will crest 100. Cases are now found in all regions of the province, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, medically tested as uninfected by the coronavirus and back from her self-imposed quarantine, told the daily briefing on the pandemic.

Yesterday, Premier Kenney announced the province had declared a provincial state of emergency, placing new and tougher restrictions on public gatherings and business activities, and extending mandatory closings to a much wider range of public facilities.

Buffet restaurants -- which never should have been allowed to open -- are closed. Bars are closed but pubs remain open -- beats me what the difference is. Libraries are closed -- so will my fines be forgiven if the big stack of books I took home in preparation for such an eventuality is not returned on time? Restaurants, which are open, are apparently permitted to function as bars, which are not. Some muddled UCP-think going on here, methinks.

Weddings are discouraged; this being the Bible Belt, marriages, presumably, are not.

Wexit Canada leader's credibility evaporates with a tweet

Wexit Canada party Leader Peter Downing was busy on Twitter the past few days squandering what little credibility he ever had musing about how Ottawa wants to use COVID-19 as an excuse to shut down Alberta's economy. "The 'Climate change' scare failed," he screeched in a tweet. "Don't fall for the new scare."

Downing must have got the message from the ratio, and tried to walk it back a little later, but one does get the feeling Wexit Canada is done like dinner. Oh well, I'm sure there's someone else Premier Kenney can use to try to scare his nemesis in Ottawa when things get back to normal.

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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