Every time I write about the antagonistic way the Alberta government is treating this province’s physicians, I receive mail from readers who have little to no sympathy.
They usually tell me their own tales of woe — how they have lost their job in the oilpatch, how everyone in their office took a 10 per cent pay cut so that fewer people would be laid off, how they have had to sell their house to have money to live, how they are spending the money they set aside for their kids’ education just to buy groceries or how they haven’t had a raise in more than a decade (something most journalists can relate to).
“These doctors are a bunch of whiners,” said a single mom from Calgary.
“They aren’t living in the real world of Alberta. Everyone I know is hurting. They’ve seen mass layoffs in their place of work and zero wage increases for years before that,” said the woman who has taken up working in a women’s boutique and delivering newspapers after being laid off as a geologist almost two years ago.
“Every Albertan is making do with less and while I agree with almost everything you write, you are way off on the issue of how the UCP government is dealing with doctors,” said a man who lost his job as a procurement specialist with a large international construction firm.
“If they are so unhappy these doctors can leave Alberta and go get paid less elsewhere, where they’ll have to pay more in taxes,” said an Airdrie high school teacher, proving that the government’s talking points are sinking in, that Alberta’s physicians are the highest paid in Canada and like all Albertans pay less in taxes.
A word of caution: Be careful what you wish for. The government of Nova Scotia has hired a top public relations firm to promote its bid to recruit more doctors.
Katrina Philopoulos, the director of physician recruitment at Nova Scotia Health, said during an interview “we are trying to recruit as many physicians as we possibly can.
“We have approximately 2,500 to 3,000 physicians who work and practice in Nova Scotia, and we currently have about 180 vacancies,” she said.
Can Nova Scotia compete financially? Philopoulos said Nova Scotia recently increased the compensation for physicians in the government’s master agreement, making doctors in that province the highest paid in the Atlantic provinces.
“What we really offer is a great ocean lifestyle, short commute times, ocean-front living, affordable housing. The breadth and scope of practice that can be practiced here is very flexible and allows doctors to follow their interests — to mix and match. If you have interest in addiction or collaborative centres or senior care, you have the opportunity to do that,” she said.
In February, in the midst of negotiations, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro tore up the province’s master agreement, or contract, with its physicians just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up around the globe.
Dr. Christine Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said she offered a five per cent cut across the board for all physicians during the negotiations. Shandro has said the AMA came ill-prepared for negotiations and wasn’t serious in finding a solution to the tough economic times the province has found itself in for the past five years, adding that over the next three years, physician pay in Alberta would cost an additional $3 billion. Considering that the $5.4-billion budget for physician compensation already represents about 10 per cent of the Alberta government’s entire budget, the UCP government is right to try to rein in costs.
No one — not government, not the majority of Albertans and not even physicians — are opposed to cutting physician costs.
“With others looking to welcome our physicians and offer a much more stable place to practice, there is a serious risk of losing very talented physicians largely due to a government more worried about control than they are quality health care.”
Philopoulos says Nova Scotia has numerous incentive programs, including a site visit program, relocation allowance, a tuition relief program and many other intangible things, including “connectedness. Our physicians are really valued members of our community.”
“It’s a very highly competitive international market for physician resources,” said Philopoulos. “So, we are doing everything we can and are not leaving any stone unturned for the recruitment of physicians to Nova Scotia.”
Has she been hearing from Alberta doctors?
“We definitely had some interest from some physicians from Western Canada, in particular, of late. And there have been some from Alberta who have contacted us.”
So, as Nova Scotia and other provincial governments in Canada are rolling out the red carpet to recruit more physicians, Alberta is doing its darnedest to pull that carpet out from under ours.
Sometimes we value something more when we know others want what we have.
Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary.