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Talks between Alberta government and doctors back on after three week hiatus

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Alberta Medical Association President Dr. Christine Molnar

A big fight with Alberta's doctors might have seemed like a good idea when the United Conservative Party's strategic braintrust came up with the plan a few weeks ago.

But that was then. This is now.

With the docs primed for action, their constitutional lawyers loaded for bear, full-page advertisements appearing in community newspapers throughout the province, widespread reports of physicians pulling out of deals to practise in Alberta and heading for Vancouver Island instead just as COVID-19 makes its debut in Calgary and Edmonton, look for the Kenney government to execute a humiliating climbdown, perhaps as early as this week.

Talks between the Alberta Medical Association and the government, which went off the rails on Valentine's Day when the government tore up its decade-old periodically renewed deal with the doctors, are suddenly back on.

Late yesterday, AMA president Christine Molnar issued a statement saying, "I am pleased to advise you that discussions continue next week with the Alberta government in an attempt toward a physician agreement that provides value for patients, fairness for physicians and affordability for the system."

Someone is probably working overtime in Health Minister Tyler Shandro's office right now, Scotch Taping the pieces of the agreement with the docs back together again. Expect never to hear the term "complex modifier" spoken in public again by an official of this government.

It's always a big mistake to pick a fight with physicians -- they have power, influence, money to spend, and friends in high places. It takes a special kind of stupid to think you could force many of them (family physicians in particular) to take a 20 per cent revenue cut over four years and get away with it politically unscathed.

And that's without a global pandemic bearing down on Alberta to scare the beejeepers out of voters, who, you can count on it, have been letting their MLAs and Shandro know what they think. What was said can't have been pretty.

Just the same, Premier Jason Kenney seemed willing to take on the doctors until the novel coronavirus reared its spiky head, a potential political grim reaper if ever there was one, and started heading our way. Never one to miss an opportunity to blame someone else, Kenney is now pointing to COVID-19 as a key reason his government's tax cuts for billionaires aren't producing the plethora of jobs he promised they would during last spring's election campaign.

In her statement, Molnar said this week's discussions will be carried on by a "small working group" made up of four representatives each from the government and the AMA.

The government's members are:

  • Dr. Kabir Jivraj, an anesthetist, former Alberta Health Services executive and former AMA president who founded AgeCare Investments Ltd., a private, for-profit long-term care provider based in Calgary
  • Dr. Lyle Oberg, physician and former Progressive Conservative minister in the cabinets of premiers Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach who later switched to the Wildrose party and has dipped his toe in the legal cannabis business
  • Feisal Keshavjee, a Calgary accountant who is managing director of a "boutique health strategy consulting firm"
  • Ivan Bernardo, a Calgary lawyer formerly a partner with Miller Thomson LLP who is now "principal advisor" to Shandro

The AMA members are:

  • Dr. Darryl LaBuick, director of Covenant Health's Youville Home in St. Albert and a past president of the AMA's Family Medicine Section
  • Dr. Michael Giuffre, a Calgary cardiologist and former AMA president
  • Mike Gormley, executive director of the AMA
  • Hal Danchilla, Conservative lobbyist and early backer of Kenney's UCP leadership bid whose Crestview Strategy biography boasts he has "shaped, advised, managed, directed or informed" ... "almost every political event in Alberta over the last 30 years" (except a few between 2015 and 2019, of course).

"Hopefully these upcoming discussions will replace the need" for further actions by the AMA, Molnar said genially in her statement yesterday.

"I want to say thank you to the physician social media community for their tireless advocacy and passion for patient care," she gracefully continued. "Thanks also to every member who worked on a town hall, spoke to media, MLAs or local officials, drafted letters or contacted the AMA to offer your support."

"Finally," Molnar concluded, surely resisting the temptation to crow, "we can all appreciate the Albertans who have also joined in the debate, bringing a variety of perspectives."

Shandro meekly tweeted "I thank the Alberta Medical Association ... for the recent message committing to keep discussion professional and civil and to move forward in a positive and productive manner."

If he's lucky, the AMA will allow him to save a little face when the deal is done.

The government will still have public sector unions to kick around, however, so don't expect the chaos in health care to end in time for the start of Alberta's coronavirus season.

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: David J. Climenhaga

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