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Health Minister Tyler Shandro unilaterally cancelled a master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association a year ago and began imposing new rules on fees and visits.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Alberta government and its 11,000 physicians have taken a first step toward resolving an ugly, fractious year-long dispute over fees and working conditions.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Paul Boucher, head of the Alberta Medical Association, announced Friday they have reached a tentative deal on a new master agreement.

Boucher declined to provide specifics on the new deal, saying he first wants to let members discuss and ratify them in the weeks to come.

But he said the deal will work within the fiscal parameters set by the government.

“This is a difficult economic time for the province and while this tentative agreement represents a commitment to staying within the budget imperatives of government, it is much more than that,” Boucher told a news conference.

“This agreement brings doctors and government back together to work through the challenges of delivering the quality care that the patients of Alberta deserve.”

Alberta’s physicians collectively receive $5 billion a year. The 2021-22 budget released this week projects that figure will stay relatively static, rising slightly to $5.3 billion by 2024.

A year ago, Shandro, using legislation passed months earlier by the United Conservative government, unilaterally cancelled the master agreement with the AMA.

He then began imposing new rules on fees and visits, arguing physician costs were rising too high year over year and were not sustainable.

It became a messy, public fight in the following months, worsened by the fact that it was taking place as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated.

Some doctors withdrew services from hospitals, including obstetrics, prompting concern from rural leaders. Others posted signs announcing they were only allowing shorter patient visits, blaming the province.

The AMA also launched a lawsuit against the government, accusing it of breaching collective bargaining rights.

The province said Alberta’s doctors were the best paid in Canada and that a new payment regime with built-in cost stability could still work for everyone.

The AMA and Shandro staffers exchanged snarky attacks on Twitter, each accusing the other of cherry-picking statistics and gaslighting the issues.

At a news conference last April, Shandro alleged AMA leadership was providing false information to its members on government contributions to medical liability insurance.

Shandro and the UCP government were criticized for fighting with doctors during a pandemic. He eventually rolled back on a number of fee changes while reiterating he was willing to work with physicians on a new master agreement that worked for both sides.

“Both parties came to the table with an understanding of what was important to each other, what was expected of each other,” Shandro said Friday.

“We understood the importance of collaboration.”

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said it’s difficult to assess the deal until the details are known.

But he said none of it matters unless Premier Jason Kenney’s government repeals a bill it passed in late 2019 allowing it to tear up the original master agreement with doctors in the first place.

“Whatever this deal is, however good it might be, if they don’t repeal Bill 21, it exists at the whim of Tyler Shandro, who can just tear it up again just like he did the last one,” said Shepherd.

When the original master agreement was cancelled, a rule within it granting third-party arbitration to resolve disputes was dissolved as well.

Boucher declined to say if such a mechanism is part of the new proposed agreement.

Asked about the future of the AMA lawsuit, he said, “The intention would be that if the agreement obviously addresses the issues within our lawsuit, then we would let that go.”

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