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Polls shows public backs Alberta MDs’ contract demands

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's doctors appear to be winning the public-relations war in their dispute with the province over a new contract, a poll shows. Albertans are increasingly turned off by government tactics as doctors ramp up efforts to win patients' support.

A poll, which was conducted on behalf of the Alberta Medical Association and is set for release Thursday, found that the Progressive Conservative government damaged its image after Health Minister Fred Horne attempted to unilaterally impose a $463-million fee regime on physicians last month after 20 months of failed contract talks.

ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc. found that 55 per cent supported the AMA in the dispute, while just 8 per cent sided with the minister.

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That contrasts sharply with responses before Albertans were aware of the government's attempt to force a deal – 45 per cent said they backed the doctors, while 15 per cent said they were on board with the province.

"They seem to share a lot of the same sentiments with the doctors: that the minister has acted arbitrarily and they would prefer to see this thing settled at the negotiating table," pollster Marc Henry of ThinkHQ said.

The province's 7,200 doctors each coughed up $500 – twice – to help amass a war chest of about $7-million to fund advertising campaigns, communications and legal costs for their labour dispute.

For example, in January, brochures and posters that outline the doctors' concerns will be available in every physician's office, and other advertising will continue in media in the new year.

On Wednesday, the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld a lower-court decision to reject the AMA's request to force the dispute into binding arbitration. But AMA president Dr. Michael Giuffre said the setback doesn't prevent the government from entering into a dispute resolution process and taking other legal steps to solve the impasse.

The doctors plan to file a lawsuit based on recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings, which conclude that certain associations, even if they aren't unions, have collective bargaining rights. The group has hired a lawyer who was involved in an Ontario Medical Association case launched after that province threatened to slash fees. Eventually a deal was settled out of court there.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information has reported that Alberta's family physicians and specialists are, on average, Canada's best paid, at nearly 30 per cent above the national average.

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The government's deal would have meant an overall raise – cost-of-living adjustments over the next three years, as well as a lump-sum payment of 2.5 per cent of the previous year's billings. It would have run through 2016.

But the doctors said the dispute isn't just about fees, but the role they can play in management of the health-care system.

The online survey of 1,314 people, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 per cent, found that respondents believe overwhelmingly that doctors should be involved in decision-making around quality of care and efficiency, any major changes to the system, ensuring there are enough physicians in the province and bringing in new programs for family care clinics.

"All they [the government] think about is that this is a PR battle about money," Dr. Giuffre said, "And yet the docs really want a seat at the table and they want a voice for health care for Albertans."

Meanwhile, the association and the government are expected to resume formal contract talks with the help of a mediator early in the new year. Dr. Thomas Marrie, the dean of the faculty of medicine at Dalhousie University, has been picked as the facilitator, according Bart Johnson, a spokesman for the Health Minister.

The province remains "optimistic" a deal with be reached by the end of February deadline, Mr. Johnson said.

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The AMA has pledged not to take job action.

"We're going to continue to take the high road," Dr. Giuffre said.

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