Starting June 13, the Bonnyville Health Centre will no longer be able to deliver babies and provide obstetrics services as local physicians and officials try to recruit.
This was going to happen before the current conflict between the provincial government and the Alberta Medical Association, said Dr. Travis Webster, but these imposed changes to how doctors run their practices won’t help recruiting, which has already been a two-year search to fill.
In fact, Dr. Webster said there hasn’t been one applicant for the position since it’s been open.
“We’ve had some physicians leave over the last couple years and the immense difficulty in recruiting to rural has meant that we have not been able to fill those positions,” he told Lakeland Connect on Tuesday.
“Then the government actions came and that just made it even worse because some of the impacts they made were on the liability premiums for physicians to provide obstetrical care, and various other measures, that just make it so tough to recruit to rural Alberta.”
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 AMA, which represents the doctors.
Many of these changes came into effect April 1, while others like the complex modifier, an additional fee physicians use when billing for patient visits that extend 15 minutes–set to change to 25 minutes–was delayed.
The AMA sued the province on April 9, citing bad faith in their negotiations.
At the rural health care meeting in March with a dozen Lakeland area doctors, the emphasis was put on how this while further worsen the state of rural health care and even make it untenable to continue providing hospital services like emergency and obstetrics.
Last week, 10 Lac La Biche physicians resigned from hospital privileges and Sundre, Rimbey, and Stettler have seen similar situations, with many choosing to solely practice in clinics or leave altogether.
“It’s about sustainability, the sustainability of rural healthcare,” said Bonnyville physician Dr. Hendrik van der Watt.
“You’ve seen what’s happening around us in the province as well. And so I am concerned, I’m disappointed. I think it’s tough because at the same time, we started dealing with COVID, which really changed everybody’s lives quite significantly.”
They repeated figures that say there are 90 physician vacancies in rural Alberta already and 44 in towns north of Edmonton.
Thirty per cent of Alberta’s population lives in rural areas, but only seven per cent of physicians practice in rural, said Dr. Webster.
“What I’ve wanted, even before these cuts, was for rural to get its fair shake, and it hasn’t. And it hasn’t for years. And this even more so perpetuates that,” he said.
“I think every physician is making assessments of the viability of them to continue to provide services…where they’re doing their assessment, and they’re seeing it does not make financial or business sense for me to stay in this one area of practice, and it makes better patient care for me to move to a different aspect.”
‘It’s still on the radar’
Mayor Gene Sobolewski said during a press conference Wednesday that had it not been for the pandemic more progress would’ve been made about Bonnyville’s obstetrics vacancy and rural health care concerns
“My fear is that if we don’t have some dialogue and discussions with the province that we possibly will still be in the same boat in terms of our obstetrics,” he said.
“We have looked at some options to alleviate that concern, but in the immediacy that we heard in the forum, we’re going to be in a bit of a vacancy for the next couple of months.
“We do have some plans in place but they have not been reconciled and with this COVID pandemic, that has not been as much of a focus. But absolutely it’s still on the radar because the issue still hasn’t been resolved and it’s not going to go away.”