Letter: Rural healthcare in Alberta is in the grip of a serious and escalating crisis

On an almost daily basis, we are learning of doctors in rural communities being forced to resign from their local hospital, or close their family practice, and in some cases leave Alberta altogether.

This list will probably be out of date before it’s printed, but we know that residents in and around Stettler, Sundre, Lac La Biche, Rocky Mountain House, Rimbey, Canmore, Three Hills, Bragg Creek, Drayton Valley, Cold Lake, Lacombe and Pincher Creek will all have reduced access to a doctor.

This is devastating news. It will harm seniors, expecting parents, young families, Albertans living with a chronic condition, and anyone who urgently needs to see a doctor.

It will also cause great harm to the economic future of these communities.

Let’s be clear: these losses are the direct consequence of Health Minister Tyler Shandro tearing up the province’s contract with Alberta’s doctors in February and the sweeping cuts he imposed on April 1. He was warned by doctors, and by me, that this would devastate rural healthcare, but he chose not to listen to those warnings.

He still isn’t listening. As the first of the mass resignations were reported, he said he would find “replacement physicians.” Clearly, he does not understand the huge amount of hard work that leaders in these communities have invested, over decades, in recruiting and retaining rural doctors. Shandro has destroyed that work, and it’s both ridiculous and insulting for him to claim he can fix it with a wave of his hand.

He clearly does not understand the hard work that these doctors have put into building their rural practices, putting long hours in at their clinics and their local hospitals. If these doctors are being forced to resign, it’s because the government has left them no choice.

Specifically, Shandro has removed the clinical stipends and cut the hospital-based fees that compensate doctors for working in their local hospital. He has deleted parts of the Rural Remote Northern Program. He has cut provincial support for insurance premiums, which are an especially onerous cost for obstetricians and family doctors who deliver babies. Lastly, he has altered the complex modifier billing codes in a manner that renders many practices unviable.

All of this chaos and uncertainty in rural healthcare comes during the COVID-19 pandemic and, frankly, we have little idea when this unprecedented situation will come to an end.

Our Opposition caucus has proposed a solution in three parts. First of all, the province’s previous contract with Alberta doctors should be restored on a temporary basis. Second, the province should enter independent third-party arbitration with doctors to develop a new contract. Lastly, the government should repeal the elements of Bill 21 that allow the government to void any future contract with doctors on a whim. It is highly unlikely that this relationship can be repaired with a contract that is binding only to one party.

Rural MLAs in the government caucus should bring this solution forward. But if that’s impossible, then the Opposition is prepared to work with them and bring it forward in the legislature.

This would be a serious break between government MLAs and the Health Minister, but the urgency of the issue transcends party politics. I strongly encourage readers to contact their MLA and let them know that they must put their partisan colours aside and do what is right for the Albertans who elected them.

David Shepherd
NDP Opposition Health Critic
MLA for Edmonton-City Centre

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