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EMS ambulances parked at the Grey Nuns hospital in Edmonton on May 7, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Alberta’s doctors have approved an agreement with the province that includes pay increases and provisions to recruit family doctors, ending a two-year legal battle that began when the province ripped up a previous contract and dragged on through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Jason Copping and Vesta Michelle Warren, president of the Alberta Medical Association, announced details of the agreement on Thursday. The deal includes an average pay rate increase between 4 and 5.25 per cent by 2026 and $750-million to stabilize the health system. Specialties facing greater pressures, such as family medicine, will see more substantive increases.

The agreement follows years of stress on health systems across Canada, including Alberta’s, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated staff shortages. Emergency departments in the province are stretched thin and access to family doctors, particularly in remote and rural areas, has dwindled.

Dr. Warren said the agreement marks the beginning of a long road ahead to fix enduring problems in the health care system.

“We’ve achieved an agreement that is good for physicians. It’s good for patients and it’s good for the health care system that supports them,” Dr. Warren said. “There is a shortage of health care workers across Canada, and even globally, and the competition is going to be fierce. This agreement will provide stability and that is key to begin to attract more in and the provisions will help us remain competitive.”

Then-health minister Tyler Shandro ended the government’s funding contract with doctors in February, 2020, after failed negotiations. Shortly after, the association filed a lawsuit against the government alleging the labour rights of its members were violated. Doctors rejected an earlier proposal in the spring of this year.

About 70 per cent of doctors voted in favour of the new agreement, which includes a commitment by the Alberta government to strengthen its relationship with physicians by repealing a portion of the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act, which gives the government the power to unilaterally terminate compensation-related agreements. When it’s revoked, the association has agreed to drop its lawsuit without seeking costs.

It’s not clear when that will happen. The United Conservative Party is set to announce a new leader – and the province’s next premier – next week. Dr. Warren said the next few weeks will signal to physicians whether the Alberta government is committed to rebuilding trust.

“I would love it if health care was outside of politics completely so we can focus on what we need to do. Our reality is, it’s not. It is tied into election cycles,” she said. “My plea to politicians everywhere is stability is necessary to begin rebuilding and healing and making change.”

Mr. Copping said focusing efforts on attracting and retaining physicians in rural areas is a priority for the province, in addition to primary care enhancements. He said the relationship with the association has improved over the past year and that working together will be key to meeting health system demands.

“When we put something in place, if it doesn’t work, that’s OK because we’re going to change it until we do get it to work,” he said. “But you need the relationship and the trust to make that happen.”

He acknowledged that the health care system has been under increased pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is no quick fix, there is no easy fix,” he said.

Thursday’s announcement included $252-million over four years, which comes to $59-million annually and $16-million in one-time funding for recruitment and retention in affected communities. Another $40-million will go toward primary care networks over two years.

David Shepherd, health critic for the Opposition New Democratic Party, said he is glad an agreement is now in place but it should have been done sooner, rather than on the heels of two years of unnecessary hostility between the government and physicians. He said he is also “deeply concerned” the new leader of the UCP could unravel progress.

“We know that there are candidates vying for the UCP leadership who have declared that they intend to cause much more chaos in our health care system,” he said. Alberta Health Services has becomes a target in the leadership race with some candidates promising to decentralize control of the health system and overhaul its organizational structure.