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Provinces should be pressing Ottawa to put more money into health care to address worker shortages across the country, says B.C. Premier John Horgan.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The government of Alberta is spending $2.6-million on a labour-recruitment drive that aims to poach skilled workers from other provinces. Family doctors in particular would be a prize – but as other provinces struggle to recruit and retain physicians, B.C.’s Premier has admonished his neighbour for the “Alberta is Calling” campaign.

“The Alberta approach is inconsistent with what provinces have been doing for the past four or five years,” Premier John Horgan said. Instead of competing with each other for sought-after workers, he said, the provinces should be pressing Ottawa to put more money into health care to address worker shortages across the country.

But a kerfuffle over the ad campaign, which touts Alberta’s high wages, low housing costs and sunshine, is superficial. Both British Columbia and Alberta have been digging deep to recruit and retain family doctors, who are in a strong bargaining position to demand more money and better working conditions.

Alberta just signed a new deal with its doctors, with the largest increases going to family physicians and select specialists. The increase for family doctors is 5.2 per cent over three years, with additional increases for rural doctors and more money available to help with office administration costs. As well, the province just set up a series of advisory panels to work with family doctors to modernize the province’s primary health care system over the next five to 10 years.

The deal ended a bitter 2½-year-long dispute with the province’s doctors that began when the government unilaterally ripped up an earlier agreement amid disagreements over pay. The relationship between doctors and the government grew worse as the pandemic dragged on, with anecdotal reports of disgruntled physicians packing up and moving to other provinces, including B.C.

British Columbia, where 1 in 5 residents doesn’t have a family doctor, is on a parallel track to assuage its disgruntled and COVID-fatigued doctors. It expects to sign a new contract for all physicians this fall, and it has already set the tone with double-digit wage hikes for public-sector workers – the most generous settlements in decades.

In addition, the province has set up a separate process to negotiate an extra package tailored for family doctors. The province is working with Doctors of BC on a new payment model for general physicians that will include improved compensation to address rising business costs, and to provide physicians with an alternative to the current fee-for-service payment system. The province has already rolled out some interim measures to staunch the loss of family doctors, including a program to put new doctors on full salary, with bonuses to help pay off student loans.

Alberta does have an edge, in financial terms. Doctors are currently paid more than in B.C., while their taxes are lower. But family doctors in both provinces have expressed frustration with fee structures, rising overhead costs, and the pay gap between GPs and specialists.

Mr. Horgan said his government is mostly focused on keeping family doctors in place. “Retention – that is the big challenge,” he told reporters. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t welcome doctors from across the country: “I believe we should, instead of putting up a flag saying, ‘Come here,’ we should demonstrate to those who are already here the value of staying – and that word will catch across the country.”

Ravi Kahlon, B.C.’s Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation, said his province doesn’t need an ad campaign. The province grew by 100,000 people last year – the highest in-migration since Canada started tracking figures in 1962. This year, the province is on track to surpass that record.

“On interprovincial migration, we had 14,000 people who moved to British Columbia last year from Alberta, net.“ he said. “I would be freaked out, too, if I was losing people at the rate that Alberta has been losing people.”

All those newcomers to B.C. are putting pressure on the health care system, and despite more than a decade of trying to attract more family doctors, the shortage in British Columbia is only growing. The province needs workers of all kinds, but health care workers are expected to top the list of in-demand skills over the next decade.

While Mr. Kahlon isn’t planning a “British Columbia is calling” campaign, the welcome mat is out. “We know we’re going to need people for the years ahead. Our natural population will start declining by 2030. And so that’s going to mean continuing to welcome people to help us address the labour shortage that we have,” Mr. Kahlon said.

Mike Holden, the chief economist of the Business Council of Alberta, said Alberta’s in-migration numbers have improved this year. “At the end of the day, it’s the economy, job opportunities and wages, affordability, that end up influencing people’s decisions to move,” he said.

Alberta is Calling is directed at young, mobile workers in Vancouver and Toronto, in particular – where the cost of living and long commutes can erode quality of life. The campaign, he predicted, will pay for itself. “It’s safe to say it’s money well spent.”

The Alberta government’s recent efforts to placate doctors, however, may prove short-lived.

Incoming premier Danielle Smith, who won her party’s leadership on Thursday, has promised aggressive reforms in Alberta’s health care system, which makes some in the industry uneasy. During the leadership campaign, she said the boards of Alberta Health Services and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta may need to be fired. She also said she would decentralize the provincial health authority, empowering local officials to make decisions.

She criticized AHS for not being able to further ramp up intensive-care capacity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and is skeptical of vaccines. During her victory speech Thursday evening, she touched on these points.

“We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order that we may work or to travel,” she said, referencing vaccine mandates, which she vowed to outlaw.

However, she stressed she wants to make reforms without reigniting a war with Alberta’s doctors. “That also means repairing our relationship with nurses and doctors,” she said in her speech. “It means attracting additional health professionals from around the world.”

With a report from Carrie Tait