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Alberta continues war on doctors as world marks anniversary of pandemic

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Health Minister Tyler Shandro. Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Throughout the pandemic, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro's war on doctors has been held up as an example of what a government ought not to do in the midst of a pandemic when front-line medical workers of all sorts are risking their lives to keep us safe and well.

Yesterday, though, the United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney had something to celebrate in that war: what appeared to be the unconditional surrender of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) bargaining committee.

Today, as it happens, is the first anniversary of the official declaration by the World Health Organization that COVID-19 had become a global pandemic.

In Alberta that day, there were 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by what was then known as the novel coronavirus. There were 98 cases in all of Canada.

I wrote in this space that we shouldn't feel too smug or confident about the low number of cases, or hesitate to take strong measures to suppress the virus and prevent our medical system from being overwhelmed.

I also argued "it is increasingly evident that whatever you say about the difficulty of fighting a new and aggressive disease like COVID-19, effective public health policy and neoliberal economic doctrine are incompatible. You can have one. You can have the other. You can't have both."

Based on what we know now, both these judgments seem sound.

We know this, of course, because our leaders, in their wisdom or lack of it, did the opposite, or as close to it as they could get away with, always with the goal in mind of restoring the worst of neoliberal economics as quickly as possible. And if that meant using the pandemic to implement the shock doctrine, so much the better.

Which brings us back to the war on doctors.

It remains to be seen if Alberta's doctors themselves will surrender, since a ratification vote must still be conducted. It seems likely, though, that they will give up and ratify, despite some complaining in the ranks on social media.

The terms of the tentative agreement are extremely unfavourable from the physicians' perspective, judging from the report of the CBC, which was leaked a copy of the deal.

The doctors' agents -- bargaining committee is a somewhat misleading term under the circumstances -- obviously abandoned all hope of ever settling disputes with this government through binding arbitration, one of the key issues in the dispute from AMA members' perspective, loudly voiced throughout the year.

So, the tentative agreement says, "the AMA acknowledges that the physician services budget is established by the minister in the minister's sole discretion."

Moreover, it continues, "the AMA further acknowledges that nothing in this agreement fetters the minister's authority or discretion with respect to the physician services budget."

If that's not unconditional surrender, what is?

The agreement -- that may not be quite the right term either, as it sounds as if the government simply scared the beejeepers out of the AMA negotiating committee and imposed its will -- also contains a provision allowing the minister to withhold agreed-upon doctors' pay if the government's health-care cost-suppression strategies don't work.

Alberta physicians were doubtless being sold hard on the one-sided deal in the AMA-members-only town hall meetings yesterday and last night. They will have been told that if they dare to keep pushing for better terms and the government somehow agrees, it can turn around and pass legislation to eliminate whatever gains they made.

Some docs could be heard on social media complaining that the government couldn't be trusted to keep any agreement, but, really, with a deal like that, trusting them is not an issue. Permission to break the deal is written right into it.

Is there anything for the doctors at all? Well, it restores physician and family support services to the AMA, and reinstates continuing medical education programs and liability insurance from the Canadian Medical Protective Association, which is popular with doctors.

With ratification, Shandro can move ahead with his campaign to send the entire war on doctors down the memory hole in time for the next election. On Tuesday, he was already insisting "there was no fight with the Alberta Medical Association."

Never mind that in April 2020, the AMA sued the government for $250 million in compensation for the way it arbitrarily tore up their last contract. The tentative agreement also includes an AMA promise to drop the suit.

And never mind that 98 per cent of the physicians who took part in a vote conducted in July by the AMA expressed no confidence in Shandro. The AMA's president at the time, Dr. Christine Molnar, said in a news release that "Mr. Shandro's words and actions have created a chaotic state in health care and have alienated most of the people responsible for actually delivering the care in the system."

"It's a toxic situation," she added, "and physicians have clearly had enough of it."

Even Postmedia political columnist Don Braid expressed his wonderment Tuesday at the way the government was denying that the very public fight had ever happened. "The great forgetting has already begun," he lamented.

But unless the doctors surprise their bargaining committee and refuse to ratify the deal, by the time the next election rolls around in 2023, you can count on it that Postmedia too will have forgotten all about the war on doctors.

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.

Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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