The Ontario government and the province's physicians are returning to the bargaining table after months of public acrimony and the recent resignation of the Ontario Medical Association's entire executive, including its president.
Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the resumption of talks late Thursday afternoon, saying in a statement that both parties have agreed to first tackle the question of arbitration, which has been a sticking point for doctors, who argue they are at a serious disadvantage if they cannot turn to a third-party adjudicator when the two sides reach an impasse.
The Premier said the province will not impose cuts to doctors' fees while the talks are on.
"The minister and I have discussed the next steps and, as a show of good faith and to demonstrate our sincere commitment to trying to reach a positive outcome in these renewed negotiations, our government will not make any unilateral adjustments to physician compensation or accountabilities while discussions are taking place," she said.
Ontario's doctors have been without a contract for almost three years.
The Ontario Medical Association, which represents more than 40,000 doctors, residents and medical students, has been fighting both the provincial government and its own internal battles.
OMA president Virginia Walley and the other five members of the group's executive resigned en masse last week after more than half of the OMA's council voted no-confidence in the executive at a special meeting on Jan. 29. A bid to force Dr. Walley and the others out at that meeting fell short of the required two-thirds threshold, but the executives stepped down just the same a week later. All six remain on the OMA board.
The special council meeting came six months after doctors voted down a tentative physician-services agreement that the OMA executive, including Dr. Walley, had endorsed.
Prior to that, the government twice unilaterally slashed doctors' fees.
The OMA has been threatening to launch unspecified job action against the government, but it is not clear what will happen now that talks are back on.
A spokeswoman for the OMA declined to answer questions about job action, providing instead an e-mailed statement applauding the Premier's "change in approach" and promising that the physician-services agreement will not be dealt with until binding arbitration is in place.
In a message to members Thursday announcing the creation of a new, five-member negotiating committee, the OMA promised the new team would reflect "the changing dynamics of the OMA."
"The Committee also represents the diverse views, both negative and positive, of our membership with respect to the last tentative Physician Services Agreement (PSA)," the notice said.
Nadia Alam, one of the 25 OMA council members who called for the recent special meeting, said Thursday that the resumption of talks is a "step in the right direction" but that doctors are "incredibly wary" of the government's intentions after being stung in the past.
"I am well aware elections are around the corner and I truly hope this isn't more smoke and mirrors," she said in an e-mail.
Kulvinder Gill, the president of Concerned Ontario Doctors, a group of physicians who vigorously opposed last summer's tentative deal, said OMA members voted overwhelmingly in favour of securing binding arbitration before returning to the table.
If that doesn't happen, she said, there will be an "uproar" from doctors.