Hundreds of Alberta doctors have signed a letter asking the provincial government to delay its proposed health-care restructuring, in a March 30, 2020 story. (File photo by Advocate staff)

UPDATED: Alberta doctors send letter asking government to delay health-care restructuring

“COVID-19 is spreading like a wildfire in this province”

Staring down the barrel of a global pandemic is not the time to restructure Alberta’s health-care system, say Alberta doctors.

More than 800 doctors signed an open letter sent to the provincial government Monday, asking the province to delay proposed health-care changes that will go into effect Wednesday.

“We’re not saying get rid of them. We’re saying pause them,” said Dr. John Julyan-Gudgeon, of Red Deer.

“This is going to create instability and unpredictability within the system. Right now, we need our physicians to be focused on the task at hand, which is staffing the front lines against COVID as it grows larger week by week, to sizes we’re not even able to fathom yet.”

The Alberta Medical Association said if the government cancels the master agreement with doctors, the province can raise or lower billing fees without consultation.

In their letter, physicians say it’s not the time to under-resource doctors.

“COVID-19 is spreading like a wildfire in this province,” the letter said.

“Physicians and medical support staff are performing beyond their means and are doing so with fewer resources.

“More than 400 community clinics across this province are either closing or laying off staff. This will overburden and overwhelm community and inpatient physicians to provide services that put patients first.”

Earlier in the month, the province cancelled changes that would have prevented doctors from getting paid extra when they spend 15 minutes with a patient. The province had proposed that the fee increase kick in when a visit reaches 25 minutes.

Julyan-Gudgeon said proposed changes that will still go into effect April 1 include stripping away stipends for rural doctors.

He said doctors are trained to work within the current system and are trying to maintain stability for Albertans as best they can. At the same time, doctors are pushing for methods they feel would work during the COVID-19 outbreak, like contacting patients by phone to reduce onsite visits.

“When we get back to the table when COVID is over, we should be at the table. We should be crucial stakeholders in developing the new system, or at least identifying changes and applying our wisdom and experience.

“We’re the ones who have lived it. (Health care) sits on our shoulders. We’re probably the ones best positioned to make it work in the future.”

Right now, physicians want Albertans to know they will continue their best to staff front lines and hold off COVID-19.

“We’re going to continue to treat (patients) with compassion. We’re going to continue to try to do our best for them, so that we can all have hope for the future,” Julyan-Gudgeon said.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a statement that the government will provide whatever resources are needed to protect Albertans.

“We expect spending on physician services and health care overall to increase significantly this year,” said the statement.

Shandro said he continues to work with the medical association to come to a solution on the master agreement.

“My door is open to any concrete, specific proposal,” said the statement.

Steve Buick, Alberta Health press secretary, said in addition to cancelling pay changes, Alberta Health Services also suspended planned reductions in stipends they pay to physicians.

He also recommended that doctors offices look at recent wage subsidy supports that the federal government announced for small and medium sized businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We recognize that Alberta doctors’ offices have seen a reduction in foot traffic in recent weeks. This is not unique to them, many other industries have seen the same phenomenon as Albertans are told to stay home (ex. retail, hospitality, etc),” Buick said.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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