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The number of Ontario doctors earning more than $476,000 annually jumped 56 per cent last year, which means more patients were able to see a physician, Health Minister George Smitherman said Wednesday.

The government lifted a salary cap for doctors which would have grown to $475,702 this year, up from $466,375 last year, in an effort to get them to see more patients, Mr. Smitherman said.

Health Ministry statistics show 1,450 doctors in Ontario earned more than the former ceiling, but officials will not say how much the highest earning doctors pulled in because of privacy concerns.

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"I rather suspect that if we're creating millionaire doctors it's because they've seen a heck of a lot of patients," Mr. Smitherman told reporters before a provincial cabinet meeting.

"There are too few doctors, and of course we want to get as much productivity as we can out of those that we have, and financial incentive is the very best way known to do that."

Mr. Smitherman said the government removed the cap on how much physicians could bill the province's health insurance plan because 1.2 million Ontario residents don't have a doctor.

"We put $1.2-billion of the people's money behind the agreement (with the Ontario Medical Association), which (NDP Leader) Howard Hampton and others called a bribe," he said. "But the reality is we needed to buy more access to Ontarians and we've done that."

Mr. Smitherman said the latest statistics show an 11-per-cent increase in doctors' productivity since the salary cap was lifted. he said that means they were seeing more patients.

Ontario's Health Ministry said GP doctors' practices were at the low end of the pay scale with an average income of $213,000, while ophthalmologists' practices are the highest with an average payment of $454,000 last year.

The ministry would provide averages only for the incomes of different medical specialists, and would not say how much the highest earners made in each category.

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