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Alberta doctors fight pay cuts in court while battling COVID-19 on the front lines

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Image: Flickr/Government of Alberta

Thursday morning, Christine Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association, announced that the province's doctors are launching a constitutional challenge and seeking $250 million in compensation from the United Conservative Party government for the way it tore up their contract two months ago.

Friday afternoon, Health Minister Tyler Shandro showed up at chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw's daily COVID-19 briefing, and not one of the reporters in attendance apparently thought to ask him a question about the AMA's lawsuit.

What's with that, anyway?

I suppose they could argue they'd already filed stories about it that morning. But it's not as if there wasn't lots of time for questions, as the government's videotape of the occasion shows. Indeed, questions were so slow coming at one point that the master of ceremonies seemed to be pleading with the journalists to toss a few more softballs. And Shandro was right there.

Nevertheless, reporters asked Hinshaw about the state of four separate nursing homes hit by coronavirus outbreaks, testing at nursing homes and homeless shelters, whether the legislature and several golf courses ought to be open, personal protective equipment for health care workers, and the use of pediatric ventilators.

Only one of them bothered to ask Shandro a question, and that was about the $235,000 temporary shelter being donated to Calgary's Peter Lougheed Hospital by Sprung Instant Structures Ltd., a company based in the hamlet of Aldersyde south of Calgary.

(Readers with exceptionally long memories for political stories may recall the tale of the company's Newfoundland Pickle Palace venture in the late 1980s, a drama that involved Conservative premier Brian Peckford, large amounts of money, a giant hydroponic greenhouse, and the death of a thousand cukes. But I digress.)

Getting back to the AMA's lawsuit, which one would have thought was a significant story, there were no questionsThis raised eyebrows on social media, prompting the usual rude responses from the UCP troll factory.

For her part, Molnar outlined the reasons for the lawsuit in some detail on the AMA's website, commenting, "If you told me a year ago that I would serve the minister of health with a statement of claim for a constitutional challenge, in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century, I would have been incredulous."

She explained that while she, AMA president-elect Paul Boucher and past president Alison Clarke are named as plaintiffs, "the claim is registered on behalf of all AMA members because the government has left us with few alternatives but to defend our interests, and those of our patients, in court."

Among the relief sought by the AMA, according to the statement of claim filed in the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench, is a declaration by the court that Alberta Health "has a duty to engage in meaningful, good faith negotiation with the AMA," and further that the government be instructed to give the AMA access to "an independent third party dispute resolution process which may be invoked in the event of a bargaining impasse between AMA and the Defendant."

In her commentary, Molnar addressed the inevitable criticism that the AMA shouldn't be doing this now, in the midst of a pandemic. The answer to that, of course, is that the government shouldn't be using COVID-19 as cover for a major assault on the province's doctors, but the AMA president was more diplomatic. As for why the government chose this time to pick that fight, that might be a good question for some reporter to ask Shandro.

"While the board and I strongly believe this court filing is necessary, I am not happy to have to take this step at this time," Molnar wrote. "Of course, patients do not need to worry that it will impact pandemic care. Alberta doctors will be here for them. We asked the Minister many times to at least delay implementation of the Physician Funding Framework until after COVID-19. Government would not agree and implemented their changes on April 1. So, here we are.

"Physicians and government need a structured, long-term way to work together. Otherwise, without an agreement and without any effective recourse or opportunity for collaboration, we are subject to the whims of government and have no real power to bargain.

"This claim seeks to return balance to the relationship between the parties and place the AMA on a more level footing for negotiations. Through this claim, we are simply asking for the same rights that other health care workers and first responders enjoy."

This will likely take a long time to resolve. Possibly longer than the worst of the COVID-19 crisis. As doctors battle the coronavirus, though, I imagine knowing their collective bargaining association is fighting for them will improve their morale considerably as they risk their lives to save ours.

The lawsuit may not be a slam dunk, but it's not based solely on a wing and a prayer. Courts have ruled before that if a government pays people, those people are entitled to have some input in to what they're paid.

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/Flickr

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