I want to start off this column by reminding everyone in our beautiful riding that as we return to some sort of normalcy with COVID-19, and as we interact with our friends, families and cohorts, especially in public areas, like our beaches, to please be cautious as you enjoy the beautiful weather. It is so lovely to see folks out and about, and enjoying the amenities of our riding, but please continue to take care of one another. Our COVID-19 numbers are on the rise again, and if you have been in crowded congregated areas, please consider going for testing to protect yourselves and your loved ones. I wear a mask in areas where there are gatherings and I keep my distance, even though as most of you know, I live for hugs. This is the choice I make to protect the person standing beside me.
I would like to chat about healthcare and physician compensation in Alberta, as there has been much debate regarding this. Unfortunately, rumours and misinformation have created difficulties for Albertans, especially in our rural areas, and the 700 doctors that serve them. I would like to share some numbers with you so that we can dispel the rumours and get to the heart of this discussion. Our government needs to manage the precious budget that we have. These are your tax dollars. Did you know that 10% (5.4 billion dollars) of Alberta’s entire budget goes to doctor compensation? We are blessed to be able to compensate our doctors higher than anywhere else in the country, but we need to get this spending under control. Compensation is the highest it has ever been in the history of our province, and we, as a society, are proud to compensate our hardworking, dedicated, and highly qualified Doctors, especially with what we have all endured with COVID-19. We need to look at this compensation and see how we can continue to keep our wonderful doctors fairly compensated, and manage your tax dollars with the greatest of care and efficiency.
I have been proud to represent this riding and also to have advocated for the unique needs of our rural doctors. I, along with all of our rural MLAs, advocated for those changes, and we were successful with the help of our rural doctors to implement those changes. In April, a new plan came to light that sees our rural Alberta communities as separate and distinct. The plan included an 81 million dollar investment to incentivize rural doctors. We removed the cap on the RRNP benefit, meaning more money is directed to where it is needed most, the more rural parts of the province. We also froze liability insurance costs for all rural and family doctors, increased on-call payments (our government actually doubled them!), and we are also providing incentives for young Albertans to pursue local rural practices, and then exempting them from overhead policy changes:
- Removed the $60,000 cap from the Rural & Remote Northern Program
- Exempted rural physicians from overhead policy (new fee codes excluding payment for office expenses)
- Paused overhead changes for urban physicians pending a policy review
- Froze medical liability insurance rates for all rural physicians and all family physicians at $1,000, with a max of $4,000 for urban specialists
- Raised rural on-call rates from $11/hr to $20-$23/hr
- Announced $6 million to pay for 20 medical students over the next three years, to attract young Albertans from rural communities to medical school and rural practise in their home communities.
Previously Announced Changes
- We have already made key changes to support physicians and patients during COVID-19 and going forward, including:
- Enabling physicians to bill unlimited virtual visits
- Cancelling all proposed changes to complex modifiers
These were all the changes our rural doctors wanted and we worked with Health to ensure these changes. As rural MLA and resident of rural Alberta for over 43 years, I understand and truly respect the unique nature of being a rural doctor. Further, our Government is very open to further discussions to address other opportunities that may be identified by our wonderful rural doctors, the communities they serve, and the Alberta Medical Association. We continue to maintain open lines of communication, and I have even held a zoom round table with our doctors to discuss their concerns and address them immediately.
Finally, there is a troubling narrative that needs to be addressed. The Official Opposition has continued their campaign of fearmongering as they push a demonstrably false narrative, claiming that roughly half of Alberta doctors are imminently leaving the province. This information was gleaned from a survey that that was completed by only 10% of the doctors in Alberta. They also claim that we are trying to prevent doctors from leaving the province and that we will coerce them to work against their will. This is completely false and is wrongfully being promoted by the opposition. We are simply looking for ways to strengthen existing requirements for physicians who are planning on leaving their patients and their practices so that we can mitigate the impact on you, our constituents. It is the right thing to do, especially with the rhetoric coming from the opposition which is spreading fear right across our province. We are following initiatives in other provinces such as Ontario, BC, and Nova Scotia. This is about you and your healthcare. This about the people, the patients and the high quality person centred care that our province is known for. Our government is concerned because some physicians have said publicly that they were leaving the province, and we must ensure that there are adequate doctors here to serve our communities. Further, it is interesting that they would leave for a higher taxed, more expensive, and less compensated jurisdiction. When doctors publically state that they are leaving the province as a negotiating tactic, this drives fear and emotion into our communities. I certainly can appreciate that we have some very important work to do with our wonderful doctors, but I cannot help but be concerned that this fear is detrimental to our communities and does not serve the greater good. Our constituents cannot be collateral damage as we work through these very serious issues with Alberta’s physicians.
I respect our doctors, and understand that COVID-19 has impacted our economy greatly, including local doctors whose offices are run like a small businesses. We have to work collaboratively to put our communities back on track, and I am certainly willing to do that along with all of our MLAs who are so privileged and blessed to be your elected officials. It is time for facts to lead the discussion, less emotion, and more working together. I know we can do this, and I know that our rural doctors have been heard, honoured and respected in the changes that have been made.