The Alberta Government has announced a series of changes on Friday to give rural health care in the province a multi-million dollar lift as tensions between physicians and government have gained momentum in recent weeks.
The complex modifier changes to how doctors are paid with patients at a clinic have been cancelled, said Health Minister Tyler Shandro on Friday joined with rural MLAs, including Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson.
Rural physicians will be exempted from overhead billing changes that took effect on March 31.
The $60,000 cap on the Rural and Remote Northern Program, which provides financial top-ups to physicians in rural and remote areas, will also be abolished.
This program will now be the most generous in the country, said Shandro.
“For example, an average physician in Fort McMurray currently billing $433,000 per year will be able to claim an additional $26,500,” he said at a press conference on Friday.
“So the total for them for the rural northern program they would be able to claim would increase to $86,500. In Sundre, the same physician would claim $51,000 and in Lac La Biche it would be an amount of $92,662.”
A comprehensive review with input from physicians will be done as this measure is paused for urban physicians.
Medical liability rates for all rural physicians, including obstetrics, will be frozen at $1,000.
Rates for all family physicians in Alberta will also be frozen at $1,000.
Rates for all other urban physicians will range from a low of $1,200 to a maximum of $4,000.
On-call rates for all rural physicians will range from $20 per hour to $23 per hour, increasing payments to some 1,500 physicians who are on call in rural Alberta.
Also, six million dollars will be used to pay for the schooling of 20 medical students over the next three years to incentivize young Albertans from rural communities to return to practise in their home communities after completing medical school.
‘Huge step in the right direction’ said Hanson
“We’ve seen this problem for a long time, long before I got into politics, people in Alberta have heard the struggles of recruiting and retaining in rural Alberta,” MLA David Hanson told Lakeland Connect on Friday.
“I think this is a huge step in the right direction and I can’t wait to hear the feedback from my local doctors and I think it’s all going to be positive. This is part of what we do as MLAs is listen to our constituents and try and make things better for our communities and I was very happy to have had a big part in this.”
Ten Lac La Biche physicians have signed their resignation from hospital privileges last week in response to the provincial changes that took effect, while a couple of Cold Lake physicians were planning to leave for personal reasons already.
Bonnyville obstetrics services will also be ending June 12 because of the inability to recruit someone to fill the position.
Hanson hopes some physicians who were considering leaving because of these provincial changes reconsider.
“It’s all about health care delivery in rural Alberta and they’re a big part of that. I just want them to know that us rural MLAs are as concerned about it as they are and spoke to the Minister, we brought their concerns forward,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate some of them jumped the gun with those announcements…but we’ve working on this for a couple of months with him and he’s been listening to us and this announcement shows that.”
In February, Health Minister Tyler Schandro announced 11 changes to physicians’ rules and fees, while keeping total spending the same at $5.4 billion after broken negotiations with the Alberta Medical Association, which represents the doctors.
Many of these changes came into effect April 1, but the AMA sued the province on April 9, citing bad faith in their negotiations.