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Alberta health minister says he regrets dismissing bitterness of year-long doctor fight

"I truly want to move forward together for the sake of patients and all Albertans," he wrote in a letter to Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul Boucher.
cp shandro regret
Minister of Health Tyler Shandro removes his made-in-Calgary mask while announcing a new agreement between Alberta Health Services and a local manufacturer to produce medical equipment, in Calgary, Alta., on Oct. 7, 2020.

EDMONTON — Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro says he regrets recently downplaying and dismissing the bitterness of a year-long fight with physicians over pay and working conditions.

And Shandro admits there’s work to be done rebuilding trust with doctors, who are currently voting on whether to ratify a proposed new master agreement between the province and the Alberta Medical Association.

Shandro made the comments to doctors this week in a letter obtained by The Canadian Press.

He said his comments, made March 9 to a legislature budget committee, were poorly chosen.

"During that debate I was challenged to reflect on the last year and the often very public way in which physician funding was spoken about," said Shandro in the letter.

"In explaining my thoughts on the matter, I denied that there had been a 'fight' over it. In (media) coverage of the debate it was suggested that I was attempting to rewrite the history of the last year.

"To be frank, I did not choose my words carefully," he added.

"The next day I wrote to AMA President Dr. Paul Boucher to express my regrets and assure him that my comments were in no way meant to diminish the concerns and the frustrations expressed by physicians over the past year."

Shandro said he was moved to write the letter after meeting last Friday with some of his critics: Dr. Samantha Myhr, president of the AMA’s Section of Rural Medicine, and other physicians in Pincher Creek. 

He said he acted on Myhr’s suggestion to share with other doctors his regret over his comments.

Myhr declined comment Thursday. The AMA has taken a position to not comment publicly to avoid influencing doctors who are now voting on the proposed new agreement.

The fight with doctors began in early 2020 after Shandro unilaterally cancelled the master agreement with the AMA and implemented new fees that doctors called heavy-handed, unfair, and liable to force some family practices to close.

In response, doctors began withdrawing services, the AMA sued the province, and the two sides swapped angry attacks on social media as COVID-19 swept through the province.

The two sides eventually returned to the table and hammered out the tentative deal that is now being voted on.

Shandro, in the letter, acknowledged that trust needs to be rebuilt.

"I truly want to move forward together for the sake of patients and all Albertans," he wrote.

"I know that journey will be difficult, and that trust will not be rebuilt overnight."

Doctors have until the end of the month to say yes or no to the deal.

Neither side has released the contents of the proposal, but details obtained by The Canadian Press specify that the collective baseline pay for the 11,000 doctors would remain at about $4.6 billion through the four years of the deal.

It would be retroactive to 2020 and subject to spending needed to speed up surgeries to reduce wait times.

Last month, the province introduced a budget that set physician compensation at $5.4 billion for the upcoming year, rising to $5.5 billion by 2024.

The proposal does not make any reference to doctors being able to have access to third-party arbitration. It would give the medical association the right to invoke non-binding mediation on key issues. But if that didn't work, the document suggests the government would have final say.

Arbitration was cancelled by the province when it threw out the master agreement last year. The AMA has previously cited arbitration as critical given that, for ethical reasons, doctors can't walk off the job to gain leverage at the bargaining table.

A lawsuit filed against the province last spring accuses the government of breaching collective bargaining rights and negotiating in bad faith.

Shandro has said fundamental changes to physician pay and work arrangements are needed to keep health care viable in the long term.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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