The new head of the association representing Ontario's doctors had sharp words for the provincial Health Minister in her first day on the job as she waded into the bitter public debate over physician pay that has held up contract talks for two years.
Virginia Walley was named president of the Ontario Medical Association on Sunday and began her tenure on the offensive, promising to sit out negotiations with the province until an arbitrator was appointed.
Both sides have been absent from the table for a year amid conflicting charges of responsibility for scuppering the talks. Meanwhile, tensions have simmered in recent weeks in the wake of a news conference by Health Minister Eric Hoskins in which he decried heavy billing by doctors and revealed that hundreds charged the province more than $1-million last year.
Dr. Walley called Dr. Hoskins's recent comments "amazingly unfortunate."
"He chose to focus on a small number of physicians," she said. "It's absolutely reckless that our goodwill and motivation to improve the system is being treated in the way that it is."
The OMA, which represents 29,000 Ontario doctors, has been without a contract for two years. Dr. Walley said Sunday that it will not return to the table until the process is covered by arbitration.
"We absolutely must have binding arbitration," she said.
The ministry's position is that the conditions of arbitration have to be discussed at the negotiating table.
Dr. Walley is a Toronto laboratory physician living in Peterborough who has held senior administrative and academic roles across Ontario, including full professorships at the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University.
She conceded that she has never led a major negotiation – "not directly and not at this level" – but noted that her main role is to advocate for doctors, rather than leading talks directly.
The new president called the protracted budget fight an "enormous waste of energy and effort," and said she hopes to resolve it "as soon as possible."
"I'd certainly rather focus my energies on things that are positive and things that improve the system," she said. "But I represent our 29,000 members. And they are frustrated, they are confused, their morale is declining, and they can't understand how their Ministry of Health can treat them this way."
At the heart of the contract dispute is the province's fee schedule, which dictates how much doctors can bill for various procedures. Dr. Hoskins has said that advances in technology have allowed some doctors to bill far more than the $368,000 annual average for Ontario physicians.
Dr. Walley countered Sunday that some procedures are undervalued, and said that the OMA's firm line wasn't about enriching its members.
"We're not talking about paying doctors more," she said. "We're talking about putting a fair process in place."
Dr. Hoskins recently urged the OMA to return to the table in hopes of reaching a deal by June 30.
With a report from The Canadian Press