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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro is seen in an April 30, 2019, file photo.

The Canadian Press

The Alberta Medical Association says the government is going ahead with its proposed health-care restructuring despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Association president Dr. Christine Molnar says in a letter to doctors that she met with Health Minister Tyler Shandro on Friday to try to work together and he committed to get back to her before the new physician funding framework came into effect this week.

“Today, we received his response stating that the government intends to proceed,” she wrote in the letter, which was posted online late Monday. “I share your extreme frustration and disappointment with this decision.

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“Adding further disruption and uncertainty to a health-care system already under unprecedented pressure from COVID-19 is simply irresponsible and not in the best interests of the health-care system and our patients.”

Mr. Shandro said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday that the province would provide whatever resources are needed to protect Albertans during the pandemic.

“We expect spending on physicians services and health care overall to increase significantly this year,” said the statement, which is similar to one sent a day earlier.

The statement added that the government will continue to work with the association.

“My door is open to any concrete, specific proposal to support physicians and patients in the emergency and going forward,” said the email.

Alberta Health said the changes came into effect Tuesday.

Total physician compensation remains flat at $5.4-billion in the government’s 2020-21 budget, but the new physician funding framework will change how doctors are paid for their work.

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Dr. Molnar acknowledged that the province had suspended changes to how family doctors are paid for in-person visits and delayed implementation of changes to stipends for hospital physicians.

Prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, the province has introduced a new billing code for phone and video visits with family doctors that is retroactive to March 17, Alberta Health said.

The province suggested the other changes are minor in nature, but Dr. Molnar called them both disruptive and damaging.

“If this new framework was a bad idea on Feb. 21, it is a critically bad idea during a pandemic,” she wrote.

More than 800 doctors sent an open letter to the government on Monday that asked it to delay the changes so that physicians can focus on the pandemic.

The group said hundreds of clinics across the province, particularly in rural areas, are already being forced to reduce staff or close their doors.

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Alberta Health said that’s not unique to doctors’ offices.

“Many other industries have seen the same phenomenon as Albertans are told to stay home,” spokesman Steve Buick said in an e-mail. “We also suggest doctors offices to look at recent wage subsidy supports that the federal government announced for small and medium sized businesses.”

Another concern raised by an Edmonton emergency doctor is about what’s known as the good faith claim, which gives people in the most marginalized populations access to public health care – even if they don’t have a health card.

“They are no longer going to have funding,” Dr. Shazma Mithani said Monday.

“We will continue to see these patients, because that’s our first priority, but we are no longer going to be appropriately resourced to see them anymore.”

Dr. Molnar said in her letter that doctors must continue to respond to the pandemic, but noted that the association will also respond to the government’s actions.

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“Our legal challenge is prepared and ready to launch,” she said. “The board will discuss the timing this week.”

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