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The Globe and Mail

Alberta willing to restart talks after pushing unilateral deal for doctors

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne coughs while ministers lined up for a news conference to answer questions following a meeting of provincial health ministers at the Lord Nelson hotel in Halifax, N.S., Nov. 24, 2011

Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne is willing to return to the bargaining table with the province's doctors, four days after walking away from stalled negotiations and giving them a unilateral deal.

That deal included annual cost-of-living increases and was, the government said, a raise that kept Alberta's doctors the best-paid in Canada. But it was a one-way deal, and the Alberta Medical Association on Tuesday released a letter urging him to resume talks. The AMA fears looming cuts to specialists' fees, as well as the axing of a program meant to retain veteran doctors, will amount to an overall pay cut and risks driving doctors from the province.

"I have received hundreds of e-mails from physicians across the province from all sections, furious with your unilateral approach," AMA president Michael Giuffre wrote in a letter to Mr. Horne on Tuesday, asking him to "rescind the imposition" of the one-way deal and resume bargaining, or call in an arbitrator. Dr. Giuffre suggested setting a deadline of Dec. 31 for a new deal.

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"We need a good working relationship between government and physicians. The stakes are too high for anything else," he added in a press release.

Mr. Horne said Tuesday he was considering a response and would return to the table, but not with the ministry chequebook – Alberta won't give more money to its doctors. "With respect to financial offer, government did put forward its best financial offer, the maximum amount of money," he said Tuesday during Question Period.

He told reporters he was "very open" to further discussions, so long as they are on concrete points. "Ultimately that's what Albertans expect from us – not just to talk, but to actually get somewhere," Mr. Horne said. He's previously dismissed calls to bring in an arbitrator.

The surprise announcement last Friday, which doctors overwhelmingly learned of through the media, is the latest blow to the relationship between the profession and the province. Complaints of physician intimidation by provincial Tories have bubbled for years, and Wildrose health critic Heather Forsyth said Alberta is reaching a breaking point with its doctors. She urged Mr. Horne to return to negotiations.

"The government must accept responsibility for its treatment of doctors and for throwing the system into such disarray," Ms. Forsyth said in a written statement.

Doctors have been without a new contract for 20 months. They signed an interim deal shortly before this spring's election, during which Dr. Giuffre's predecessor publicly clashed with PC Leader Alison Redford, who won a majority and remained premier. The interim deal lapsed and talks broke down last week, leading to Mr. Horne unilaterally implementing what he said was his best and final offer.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information says both Alberta's family doctors and specialists, on average, are paid nearly 30 per cent more than the national average.

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