Alberta Health is lifting a daily cap on the services doctors provide in an effort to improve patient access.
Sine 2020, doctors were only fully compensated for the first 50 services they provide and 50 per cent for 51 to 65 services. After that, no compensation was provided. In many cases, especially where specialists are involved, a patient may require a number of services during a single visit.
Introduced as part of the Physician Funding Framework in 2020, the cap was to improve quality patient care by reducing physician burnout while saving health dollars.
In a Zoom news conference on Monday afternoon, Health Minister Jason Copping said the cap was being removed as a result of negotiations with the Alberta Medical Association (AMA).
Copping said doctors told the province the cap was having a negative effect on their ability to provide care. In some cases, doctors had to close their clinics early after exceeding service limits.
That was happening at a time when demand for doctors was soaring amidst the pandemic and when growing numbers of Albertans cannot get a family physician.
“The fact is the cap was a source of frustration for physicians,” said Copping, who was joined in the news conference by AMA president Dr. Fredrykka Rinaldi.
Rinaldi praised the move, saying that the cap “significantly interfered in access” to physicians. Lifting the cap will not affect the quality of care received by patients, she said, adding doctors are professionals who care about their patients. Besides, the cap returns to the system that was in place prior to 2020.
The cap on services should not be confused with doctor visits, she emphasized. For instance, an ophthalmologist may provide eight or more billable services to a single patient, meaning the number of patients they see could be significantly curtailed.
Rinaldi was optimistic that lifting the cap, as well as other financial improvements such as a one per cent increase for doctors in each of the next three years along with a one per cent lumps sum payment for 2022-23, will help lure more doctors to the province and convince more to continue running family practices.
“I think the removal of the daily cap is a good step forward, along with the one-time payment,” she said.
It will provide more financial certainty and stability to doctors, who like many business owners have struggled during the pandemic and been hit hard by inflation.
“It’s the stability. That’s huge,” she said. “We have to make (providing health care) a positive, attractive environment.”
Both Rinaldi and Copping said the cap removal was an example of the province working with doctors and shows that progress is being made on the promises in an agreement ratified by physicians in September.
The agreement will mean an investment of about $750 million in new funding over four years to stabilize the healthcare system. It includes more than $250 million in targeted funding to address pressures, including recruitment and retention programs.
NDP health critic David Shepherd said the UCP government should not be “patting themselves on the back.”
“They began their term in office by waging war with doctors and actively made the system worse during a pandemic when Albertans needed timely access to care,” Shepherd said in a statement.
“If lifting this cap allows more Albertans to access a family doctor, then implementing it has denied Albertans access over the last two years in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Instead of collaboration, the UCP attacked doctors and caused many to leave. Today, thanks to the UCP, hundreds of thousands of Albertans are without access to a family doctor. This has put more pressure on overwhelmed emergency rooms.”