Municipalities fighting to protect rural health care

Rural Municipalities of Alberta urging province to work with doctors on new agreement

Alberta’s rural communities are already getting the “bare minimum” of health care, so the government should not be making changes that would make conditions worse, says the group that represents rural counties and municipalities.

“We have 20 per cent of the population in the rural health care credit area, and only seven per cent of the doctors and only 5.8 per cent of the budget,” the president of Rural Municipalities of Alberta said this week.

“Those are concerns,” said president Al Kemmere in a conference call with Red Deer County council.

Kemmere said his group has had a number of meetings recently with the Alberta Medical Association, MLAs and others to voice communities’ concerns about what they see as a threat to rural medicine.

In February, the provincial government ended its negotiations with the AMA and terminated a master agreement with doctors as of March 31.

A more restrictive funding formula was proposed, which alarmed many rural doctors and the communities they serve.

“With the new model in place, rural clinics could close as physicians move elsewhere,” says background information for a resolution sponsored by Lac La Biche County that will go to the Rural Municipalities of Alberta’s next conference.

The resolution calls on the group to urge the province to reopen negotiations with the AMA, to “mutually arrive at a new master agreement that ensures continued timely access to health care for all rural Albertans.

“Doctors in Lac La Biche County, rural Alberta, and the entire province have serious doubts about the viability of their practices under the new framework. Even under the now-expired framework, it has been especially difficult to attract and retain doctors to rural Alberta.”

Kemmere said his group does not see its role as getting involved in negotiations between the province and health-care providers.

“We’re just emphasizing the fact we need to have everybody realize how important rural health care is,” he said. “It’s one of the key pillars in our communities.

“In Alberta, we already suffer and we already live through a lower level of preventative health care compared to those who live in the urban centres, primarily because of the distances that people have to travel and the fact we don’t have access to the same amount of physicians that they have in the urban centres.”

Last week, Health Minister Tyler Shandro rolled back changes he imposed in March that led doctors in numerous rural areas to announce they would no longer be working in emergency rooms or delivering babies.

A number of communities voiced fears they would lose doctors under the new plan.

Shandro said doctors will once again be allowed to charge for overhead while working in government-run facilities, and he reversed a plan to reduce the provincial contribution to doctors’ medical liability plans.

Ponoka County Reeve Paul MacLaughlin said he spoke in a conference call last week with Environment Minister and Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Jason Nixon, Shandro and Rimbey doctors to discuss rural health care concerns.

“I guess the message is that was a very tense meeting,” he said, adding the doctors are leery of the government’s intentions.

“There are some trust issues and some bridge building as we move forward.

“The thing that keeps my community together is the hospital,” said McLaughlin, who is the director for Rural Municipalities of Alberta’s central zone.

“Basically, my message to both those ministers was I want a hospital, I want healthy doctors and I want to make sure my community is safe.”

Red Deer County Coun. Jean Bota said, “this isn’t just about urban and rural.

“This is about the cumulative effect. If the hospital in Rimbey is shut down, then everybody floods to Red Deer or the next community centre.”

“I do think there’s a lot of mistrust between the doctors and the minister.”



pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

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