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Pincher Creek doctors agree to stay for another 90 days

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro. Image: Chris Schwarz/Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Physicians in Pincher Creek who gave three months' notice they were withdrawing from hospital service in response to Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro's "war on doctors" were told they had to show up for August on-call duty anyway in letters Tuesday from a top official of Alberta Health Services' South Zone.

The reason: AHS couldn't find replacements, so the health authority just decided to make them work anyway.

If they didn't show up, interim South Zone medical director Michael Auld's letter warned, they would be reported to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta for "unprofessional conduct."

You really can't make this stuff up. At least, if you tried, no one would believe you.

However, NDP health critic David Shepherd yesterday published the letter sent by Auld to one of the nine physicians in the Pincher Creek Associate Clinic, so you don't have to take some blogger's word for it.

"Attached is the on-call schedule for August 2020," Auld's letter told Dr. Samantha Myhr. "Physicians in your call group have been assigned call for all unfilled days in August. … Failure to show up on the scheduled day(s) will result in a Part 6 Investigation under the AHS Medical Staff Bylaws and a report to the CPSA for unprofessional conduct."

Despite repeated promises by Shandro and United Conservative Party press secretaries and "issues managers" that replacements would be easy to find, by the time the clock was running out this week on the docs' 90-day notice period, AHS had only found enough locum replacements to cover two weeks of shifts in the hospital in the southwestern Alberta town.

"In other words," Shepherd wrote in a Twitter commentary accompanying his release of the letter, Shandro and AHS "utterly failed to fill the gap."

AHS "will not be able to do surgeries or obstetrics," Shepherd continued. "They may not be able to cover the ER 24 hours. This is a far cry from Minister Shandro stating that he would just move physicians into communities."

Still, even by the standards of Jason Kenney's Alberta, just ordering people to do work they've already properly quit is pretty outrageous.

Indeed, it's the most perfect example I have ever encountered of what was described to me more than 40 years ago by a wise old civil servant as the first law of bureaucracy. It goes like this: "We've made a mistake. We've given it to you. We won't take it back. Now it's your mistake!"

Earlier yesterday, Pincher Creek Mayor Don Anderberg said in a Facebook video that "town council feels that the health minister, Alberta Health and to an extent Alberta Health Services have put our community in a position that come August first may well trigger a public health emergency."

What's happening in the town of 3,600, he continued, "is a far cry from Minister Shandro stating on the 6 o'clock news that he would just move physicians into communities where doctors want to leave. We know how hard it is to get doctors to our communities and keep them there."

"The minister and AHS have made these statements and many more that they quite clearly cannot deliver on and our health system in Pincher Creek will be in a world of hurt from Saturday," Mayor Anderberg said.

Assailing Shandro, the Health Ministry and AHS for their tactics against the Alberta Medical Association, he emphasized that the town council asked the local doctors to extend their notice for another 90 days, and that the nine physicians accepted the request. "We now have a window of opportunity."

Addressing Shandro and ministry officials directly, Mayor Anderberg continued, "it may look like you got somebody to blink and cave through your actions, but the truth of the matter is, our local doctors should be applauded for helping to avert an unmitigated disaster in health care in our community."

Strong words like these about the UCP by local elected officials in small-town Alberta are extremely unusual. They explain why some UCP rural MLAs are said to be nervous enough to ponder quitting their caucus and sitting as independents -- as unlikely as that is to happen just yet.

In their letter to the town's council, the nine Pincher Creek physicians promised, "we will not stand by and watch AHS and the government fail our community as the pandemic creates an ever greater need for local medical services."

However, they added, "we remain concerned about the upcoming changes to our local services and the failure by the Government of Alberta or Alberta Health Services to engage in collaborative consultation."

Noting that their concerns had been treated with disdain, they warned that the UCP and AHS "continue to push their ideological changes despite the measurable harm being caused to communities like ours."

So Premier Kenney, Shandro and AHS have another three months to fix this festering problem in the UCP's electoral heartland.

Since similar fights with local doctors are happening in other rural Alberta communities, it's quite possible the same situation could arise elsewhere -- at least until the courts weigh in with a ruling that indentured servitude is not actually a thing in Canada any more.

As Mayor Anderberg concluded his remarks yesterday, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., "it is always the right time to do what is right."

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: Chris Schwarz/Alberta Newsroom/Flickr​

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