The Cranbrook Virtual Clinic for patients without a family physician is still operational, at least until August 31, says the EK Division of Family Practice.

Opinion: Let’s protect doctors’ incomes in the event they catch COVID

“Sourcing masks from Orpyx, an established Calgary-based company, helps us continue protecting health-care workers and the public from COVID-19.”

– Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Oct. 7

The health minister referred to a $60-million, two-year agreement to produce 40 million medical masks. This was excellent news, but Tyler Shandro still overlooked the need for all Alberta health professionals also to be financially protected.

Several months ago, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister stated, “We want to encourage people not to work when they are ill and we want to make sure that they are not hurt financially in these difficult times as a consequence of making the smart and caring decision.”

Paid sick benefits for those forced to self-isolate, or those who contract COVID-19, should apply to all Canadian health professionals.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit is a good start. It pays $500 per week for up to two weeks, even to self-employed workers. However, it is an inadequate amount, and hardly meets the needs of physicians, most nurses, and many other health professionals.

COVID cases in Alberta have set new records, including 800 in one day this week.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw warned that it was “absolutely critical” that all Albertans stay home when they had any symptoms. Yet in Edmonton, nine per cent of active cases worked while they had symptoms.

A “second wave” of the pandemic has definitely begun, especially in Winnipeg, much of southern Ontario, and in Quebec.

Sadly, three provinces – Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario – continue to ignore the need for physicians to be fully financially protected if they themselves are forced to self-isolate or contract the coronavirus.

Unlike salaried nurses and respiratory therapists, most physicians are self-employed and rely on private insurance.

Older physicians are at greater risk of developing severe or fatal disease, but those older than age 65 generally cannot qualify for private insurance. For even younger ones, there is usually a waiting period of days or weeks.

Most provinces have recognized this fact. The majority of British Columbia physicians under age 70 are already covered by a government-funded disability plan; this paid from Day 1 of a quarantine period.

Last spring, a special quarantine replacement benefit was set up to protect those doctors not in the government plan.

Quebec, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and the Yukon all cover their MDs for lost income from Day 1 of self-isolation or illness.

Only Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba have left their physicians totally unprotected.

The Aug. 19 Decent Work and Health Report, produced by a health advocacy group, stated that universal, paid sick days were a “necessary, evidence-based protection” to mitigate the second wave of COVID-19.

A March 20 policy statement by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development agreed. It also supported “Extending paid leave coverage to non-standard workers, including the self-employed.”

This would include physicians.

Provincial and territorial governments should demonstrate respect and appreciation to their physicians by at least covering their lost income during quarantine or illness with COVID-19.

Some may find this difficult. Ontario now has a deficit of $38.5 billion (triple that of last year) and Alberta one of $24.2 billion.

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland should agree to increase the Canada Health Transfer to the provinces and territories from $42 billion to $70 billion.

They, in turn, should agree to use some of the additional money to provide pandemic sick benefits to all practising physicians, as well as, if necessary, topping up federal benefits for part-time nurses and other health workers, so as to adequately replace their lost income.

This will encourage them to self-isolate, if necessary, and help control the pandemic.

If Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro wish to restore normal, less confrontational relations with Alberta doctors, a good first step would be to guarantee sick benefits to them, as most other provinces have done.

This topic should be on the agenda when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets virtually this fall with the premiers.

If we are “all in this together,” then all practising physicians and other health professionals in Canada deserve benefits when off work due to the coronavirus.

They should not be deprived of these because they are self employed, work part time, or because of their age, pre-existing illnesses, or just because they happen to live in a certain province or territory.

Ottawa physician Charles S. Shaver is past chair of the section on general internal medicine of the Ontario Medical Association. The views expressed here are his own.

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