Alberta premier defends doctor reform

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said “perhaps misinformed attacks” by the Alberta Medical Association on his government’s initiative to rein in health-care costs have helped fuel grievances by rural physicians.

“We acknowledge that there are always unique challenges in recruiting and retaining rural physicians, that’s not new to Alberta,” he told the recent virtual annual general meeting of the United Conservative Party.

But he maintained that the province’s rural physicians “are the best compensated, with the strongest incentives in the country, and we hope that they’ll acknowledge that fact and continue to serve our rural communities.”

Kenney also outlined why his government is considering establishing a provincial police force, a move that would affect rural Albertans currently served by the RCMP. He said it is part of his government’s fight with Ottawa for a fair deal for the province, one that includes proposals such as an Alberta pension plan.

After negotiations fell apart, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro ripped up the province’s contract with doctors in February, outraging the Alberta Medical Association. He imposed changes that included billing and compensation, leading some rural physicians to announce they were leaving the province.

“First of all, obviously, we all value our doctors and our nurses, all of our frontline health-care workers,” Kenney told the AGM Oct. 17, adding “they deserve to be compensated, not just fairly, but generously.”

But Alberta’s deficit has quadrupled to $24 billon since the COVID-19-fuelled global recession, “the largest in our history, with a huge collapse of revenues, and so obviously, we have to better manage our spending,” he said.

“One of the single largest parts of that spending is physician compensation at $5.4 billion, which is about 10 percent of the total spending of the government of Alberta — that goes out to about 11,000 physicians.

“It’s a quarter of all the compensation paid to a quarter of a million folks who work in the broad public sector in Alberta, and when most of the government unions have had zeros in their collective bargaining agreements, the doctors have seen average total increases in compensation of about six percent per year.”

As a result, the provincial government has asked for a $5.4 billion cap to “stop the big annual increases,” he said. But after the provincial government heard from rural physicians and the UCP’s rural caucus, Shandro brought forward $80 million in additional incentives and support in April to recruit and retain rural physicians, said Kenney.

Alberta physicians also benefit from lower personal income taxes and a generally lower cost of living than in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, he said.

During Oct. 16 policy debates at the AGM, some UCP members were concerned that establishing things such as a provincial police force will cost Albertans more money, flying in the face of efforts to reduce a provincial deficit swollen by the pandemic.

“It’s just interesting to see that we’re debating on policies about reducing our spending and, you know, getting rid of our debt, and then we’re also voting on policies to have our own pension plan, our own police force, and our own tax agency, and it just doesn’t add up to me,” said one member.

But others supported it, seeing the provincial police force as augmenting, not replacing, the RCMP. They saw it as being more responsive to Albertans while reducing federal interference in the province.

Other initiatives include establishing “our own chief firearms officer, our own Alberta parole board, and so much more,” said Kenney. “All of these things combined would make for a stronger Alberta,” he said.

He told his party the initiatives are part of a broader strategy to boost Alberta’s leverage with Ottawa over things such as equalization payments and the Trans Mountain Pipeline through B.C.

“We have to know what our goal is, and our goal must be jobs and growth,” he said.

“We’re not going to have jobs and growth unless and until we get at least one coastal pipeline. The federal government owns the only coastal pipeline. We need to maximize our leverage to insist that that pipeline get done, and that is going to be challenging when the green left starts their war in the woods scenarios, their illegal protests to try to block that pipeline.”

Kenney said the provincial pension plan is “probably the most potent tool that we could use … because it represents a $3 billion-a-year transfer to the rest of the country that we can actually control.”

A proposed Alberta equalization referendum slated for next year will have no legal weight with the federal government, he said. “But what it will do is to elevate our fight for fairness to the top of the national agenda in a way similar to what Quebec has done so effectively for 40 years,” he said.

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