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Alberta health minister tells college of physicians and surgeons it can't let doctors quit

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro during a press briefing on July 13, 2020. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler Shandro's on fire!

Not in a good way, though.

There was a strong signal yesterday that Alberta's health minister has completely lost control of the fight he's picked with the province's physicians.

It turns out that while the minister and the government's paid social media trolls were disputing the results of a poll by the Alberta Medical Association showing nearly half the province's physicians were thinking about leaving, Shandro was demanding the College of Physicians and Surgeons change its rules to make it harder for disgusted physicians to quit.

That sure doesn't sound like a man who believes his own propaganda!

The AMA is the doctors' collective bargaining association, which negotiates their compensation. The college is their regulatory body, responsible for ensuring physicians abide by the standards of their profession.

Last February, Shandro tore up the AMA's contract and announced he was imposing a deal on Alberta's physicians that rural and family doctors said would significantly cut their incomes.

It's been pretty much open warfare between the United Conservative Party government and the province's 10,000 doctors ever since -- right in the middle of a deadly global pandemic.

I haven't seen any polling that suggests how Albertans feel about this -- but it can't be good.

The AMA went to court in April, challenging the constitutionality of the government's contract breaking and seeking $250 million in damages for its members.

Individual doctors responded by talking about leaving the province -- and in some places doing just that. In at least 10 rural communities -- the UCP's electoral heartland -- all the docs have either withdrawn from service or announced they're about to leave.

Turns out if you're a rural doctor, lots of places in Canada and elsewhere in the world would be delighted to hire you. They'll even promise to treat you with respect! Who knew?

Last Thursday, the government filed its statement of defence in the AMA's suit, and the UCP's army of political staffers mocked the doctors' chances in court.

The next day the AMA published a poll it had commissioned showing 42 per cent of all Alberta doctors docs were thinking of leaving, quitting or retiring early. Of that group, 49 per cent said they were pondering quitting or planning to leave. Almost 90 per cent of the 1,470 respondents said they would change their practices one way or another.

Shandro and the government's trolls went nuts. Supposedly to back up his claim Alberta's doctors are overpaid, Shandro threatened last week to publish their salaries on a special medical "sunshine list."

That one also went over like the proverbial lead balloon. To many Albertans it sounded more like revenge and bullying. Docs were furious.

When individual physicians took to social media to challenge the government, they were viciously trolled by UCP staffers.

Yesterday, the AMA took out large newspaper advertisements across the province offering an olive branch to the government, a deal "for the good of Albertans" that would bow to the government's demand for three years of no funding increase -- but keep binding arbitration to resolve disputes that can't be settled at the bargaining table.

But also yesterday, thanks to a report by the CBC, we learned that behind the scenes, Shandro's plan was just to make it harder for doctors to quit. As for the UCP's beloved free market? Forget about it!

In a letter sent June 18, he directed the college to change its standards of practice for physicians by July 20 to stop Alberta doctors from leaving their practices en masse, the CBC reported.

His letter told the college it must "prohibit an entire group of physicians from withdrawing at the same time. This could be identified as 'job action' rather than a closure of a medical practice."

Doctors should be required to give three months' notice before leaving a practice, Shandro's letter states. Never mind that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives full mobility rights to all Canadians -- and that the notwithstanding clause doesn't apply to that part of the charter.

And if the college won't cooperate, the minister threatened, he would use his powers under the Health Professions Act to force it to change its rules.

The college, sensibly, stalled. If nothing else, it'll give them a chance to call their lawyers.

Its leaders asked for, and got, an extra 30 days to consult their members and the ministry officials about how this might work. No doubt they also hope the grown-ups will show up and send Shandro to his room.

If Alberta's physicians were furious before, they're likely apoplectic now. Some of those who were staying put out of loyalty to their patients during a pandemic may now rush for the exits in the next 30 days to beat the new rules out of town.

Shandro's latest announcement also likely means their practices will lose value.

One doctor told the CBC sticking around with these rules would be like indentured servitude. It's hard to dispute that characterization when Shandro's letter states, "if alternative resources and/or arrangements are ineffective … the College can require that some or all physicians involved in the withdrawal of services must continue to provide services until effective alternative resources and/or arrangements have been created."

What's next? Sending out Kenney's nascent provincial police force to track down runaway doctors and drag them back to rural Alberta?

Someone must have told Shandro that a war with the doctors would be good, and easy to win. He was misinformed.

If you had any doubts the Kenney government's war on doctors isn't going very well, yesterday's desperation play should confirm it.

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: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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