Sundre doctors reduce services in response to new funding model

Rimbey doctor to quit after COVID-19 pandemic

Physicians from a Sundre clinic have posted an emotional video announcing their plan to discontinue obstetrics, acute care and emergency department services, citing cuts to rural doctors’ compensation.

Physicians at Moose and Squirrel Medical say the changes are designed to ensure the clinic, which serves more than 4,000 patients in the Sundre and Caroline areas, can remain open after a new funding model was introduced April 1.

The master agreement between Alberta physicians and the government ended March 31. Conversations have been ongoing since late last year, but negotiations have failed.

Total physician compensation remains flat at $5.4 billion in the government’s 2020-21 budget, but the new framework will change how doctors are paid for their work.

Dr. Robert Warren, a physician at the Sundre clinic, said the cuts impact rural medicine and rural practitioners.

“It’s almost as though it was designed to have maximum impact on rural doctors, because the cuts applied heavily to doctors who practice in clinics. And then again in another set of cuts to those who work in rural emergency departments and hospitals,” he said.

The clinic’s doctors will no longer be able to see patients in the emergency department in about 90 days.

“That means our physicians will no longer be working in the Sundre emergency room, or looking after patients when they’re admitted to Sundre hospital. This is the model you see practised in the city all the time,” said Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren.

“We’re devastated that it’s come to this, but this is the consequences of the government’s decision, and if we don’t react or change, we won’t be here at all,” she said.

On Sunday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said there will be no reduction to services at Sundre hospital, or to other health care services in the community.

“If these physicians choose to voluntarily give up their privileges, we will immediately bring in replacement physicians to provide those services,” he said.

Warren said he predicts many rural doctors across the province will be wrestling with similar decisions as a result of the fee changes.

Dr. Cian Hackett, in Rimbey, said in an open letter on Facebook that once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, he will no longer be working in Rimbey.

“The net effect of these changes is that the relative compensation being offered to work in Rimbey hospital to provide emergency department coverage and after-hours care is so poor, that it does not make sense to continue to offer these services,” said Hackett.

“Rural physician groups are being forced to choose between working in their clinics, or their local hospital. When this pandemic is over, I will choose neither. I will choose to work somewhere I feel valued and respected,” he added.

Seven physicians in Stettler have handed in their resignations as a result of the changes by the government, CTV News has reported. It said the doctors decided to quit emergency room practices at the Stettler Hospital and Care Centre.

In late March, around 800 doctors sent an open letter to the UCP government asking the province to delay the health-care changes.

In their letter, physicians said 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.

With files from The Canadian Press

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