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Health community responds to government move to lift patient cap

Lifting cap does not address health care workforce shortages says Friends of Medicare

Removing a cap on patient services may make it easier for people to see a doctor but the health community remains concerned about the government’s approach to health care.

“It is encouraging that the government has decided to undo some of their own disastrous policies that prevented doctors from caring for patients,” said Ponoka family physician Dr. Greg Sawitsky.

“Some days one could be forgiven for thinking that the UCP wanted to engineer the system to fail so they could pitch privatization to a desperate public.”

Health Minister Jason Copping announced in a virtual news conference on Monday that a cap system that compensated doctors fully only for the first 50 services given to patients and half compensation for the next 15 services will be dropped.

The government introduced the cap — panned by many doctors and the Alberta Medical Association — in 2020 as part of the Physician Funding Framework. The goal, said the government, was to improve quality of patient care and reduce doctor burnout while saving money.

Sawitsky believes the move was misguided from the start.

“As a doctor, I am trained to see patients and that is what I want to do every day, but the government thought they knew how I should do my job better than I do,” he said. “This kind of government interference must stop and Alberta’s physicians should be able to practise medicine freely.”

The agreement between the province and Alberta’s doctors ratified by physicians in September “is hopeful but this government is only one bad decision away from undoing all of the progress they have tried so desperately to gain since they attacked Alberta’s doctors in 2020.”

Red Deer’s Dr. Peter Bouch said while some doctors do not see enough patients daily to be affected by the cap, there are others — especially in busy walk-in clinics — who will benefit, along with their patients.

“They will able to see a physician and the doors won’t be closed when (the doctor) has seen 50,” said Bouch.

He believes some walk-in clinics in the city close earlier than they might have without a cap in place. “I think it will definitely make it a little more accessible for patients, for sure.”

Like many doctors, Bouch will be waiting to see if Premier Danielle Smith provides more information in a Tuesday evening television address about the prospect of introducing health savings accounts, which could be used to pay for a variety of non-medicare services, such as a chiropractor, naturopath, dentist or counsellor.

“I’m not sure that’s going to go over very well.”

Friends of Medicare executive director Chris Gallaway said the cap move reverses a bad decision to rip up an agreement with doctors in 2020 that led hundreds to leave the province.

“The best data we’ve seen says 69 communities outside Calgary and Edmonton have lost doctors,” he said. “They created a mess and this is a slight tweak isn’t going to clean up that mess.”

Gallaway said many people cannot find a family doctor. In Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, no doctors are accepting new patients.

The province needs to come up with a workforce plan to address the shortages of all health-care workers, he said.

“We do not have the staffing we need and we don’t have a government that’s even acknowledging the crisis is rooted in that, let alone having that overview from above to look at the solution.”

A number of local communities are looking at incentives to lure doctors to their communities. “But to us that’s a race to the bottom and we’re competing with each other for doctors. We need a provincial approach to ensure there are doctors when we need one.”

In his news conference, the health minister touted the $750-million agreement with doctors as a major step forward in addressing some of the province’s health-care challenges. The agreement includes one per cent raises for the next three years and one lump-sum payment of one per cent.

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