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Whether or not half of Alberta's doctors are thinking of leaving the province, even a much smaller exodus would be a disaster

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

Publication by the Alberta Medical Association of poll results showing close to half the province's physicians are thinking about leaving Alberta in response to the United Conservative Party's war on doctors seems to have enraged Premier Jason Kenney's strategic brain trust.

Leastways, the UCP's immediate response -- threatening to publish individual physicians' compensation -- suggests a knee-jerk instinct to strike back that may turn out to be a blunder.

First thing Friday morning, an AMA news release revealed nearly half of all Alberta physicians, 49 per cent, are at least thinking about leaving the province because of the policies of Premier Jason Kenney's UCP government.

News media coverage was heavy, naturally, no doubt further provoking the Kenny government's authoritarian instincts.

Nine out of 10 Alberta doctors, the survey ominously suggested, "will be making changes to their medical practices as a result of the funding framework Health Minister Tyler Shandro imposed on physicians."

"Of this group," the news release continued, "an alarming 49 per cent have made plans or are considering looking for work in another province … Another third said they may leave the profession or retire early, with other alternatives being mulled including changing how they offer services/withdrawing services from AHS facilities (48 per cent), reducing their hours (43 per cent) and laying off staff (34 per cent)."

"Physicians have reached a breaking point," the release quoted Christine Molnar saying. The president of the association that collectively bargains compensation for about 10,000 Alberta physicians called the government's tactics reckless. "I'm deeply troubled by where this is going and what it’s going to mean for medical practices and patients in the coming months."

The government struck back furiously with a rhetorical salvo, trotting out talking points that physicians are paid more on average in Alberta than other provinces, questioning the accuracy of the survey results, and accusing the organization which negotiates physicians' compensation of having "never taken bargaining seriously."

But the key point in the release was the threat that "since Albertans should know the facts, the government is also exploring introducing physician compensation transparency, as exists for public servants in Alberta and physicians in a number of other provinces."

To a lot of Albertans, the threat to publish physician compensation as part of its sunshine list seems like nothing more than bullying.

The government says nothing nowadays, of course, about how running a doctor's office is a business, out of which income must go to rent, expenses and pay for employees -- although Shandro certainly knew this to be the case back in 2013.

Nor is there acknowledgement by the UCP that becoming a physician is an expensive endeavour, requiring years of high-priced education, or that salaries in every category have for years been higher in Alberta than other Canadian provinces.

Instead, the echo chamber of UCP "issues managers" and press secretaries vilifies any doctor that talks back to them, and seems to be daring physicians to pull up stakes and leave.

While the argument in Shandro's latest press release is right that not every doctor who would like to leave actually will, even if only 10 per cent of the province's doctors move or retire, it will be a disaster for front-line medical services in this province.

Even Licia Corbella, a reliably pro-UCP Postmedia columnist, declared: "If even a fraction of those physicians carry through, it will be a costly brain drain that will be felt by Albertans for generations to come."

Nor has it seemingly occurred to the UCP strategic brain trust that publishing physician compensation on the province's sunshine list won't necessarily hurt the doctors' cause.

What do you want to bet a lot of Albertans, grown accustomed to UCP propaganda suggesting doctors are overpaid, will be surprised and troubled by how modest many of their salaries appear? This is especially true of general practitioners and physicians in rural areas.

Declaring a war on doctors during a pandemic seemed like a strange thing for a government to do when it started. In April, it led to the AMA launching a constitutional challenge and seeking $250 million in compensation from the government for the way it arbitrarily ripped up their contract two months before and took away their right to arbitration to resolve disputes.

On Thursday, the government filed its statement of defence, claiming in a news release that "Alberta's negotiators worked hard and in good faith to arrive at an acceptable agreement" and disparaging the doctors' legal case as doomed.

We'll see about that when the government makes its arguments to a judge.

In the meantime, sticking with the war on doctors now seems perverse. Many physicians are so bitter about how they are being treated they're likely to leave even if it means a little less money.

As Lindsay Campbell late of Spruce Grove tweeted yesterday, with a nice picture: "This is the face of two doctors who have worked in AB for 12 and 6 years. We are now enjoying the freedom from vilification by the UCP working in the Yukon. It isn't about money … it's about respect and protection of public health care."

Alberta's response to the risk of a medical exodus that it denies is credible has been to post 179 openings for physicians on a website used by applicants from abroad, said by physicians to be an unusual surge.

Meanwhile, health authorities in other parts of Canada are doing the same thing -- making their pitches to disgruntled Alberta docs.

They'll probably get a few, as there are no signs the Kenney government's perverse war on doctors will end any time soon.

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: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video/YouTube

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