A potential showdown with Quebec's doctors over generous salary increases awarded by the former Liberal government could derail PQ plans to achieve a balanced budget by the end of the next fiscal year.
The wage hikes, locked into contracts that make it impossible to roll back without legislation, are viewed by Pauline Marois's government as a major impediment toward achieving the zero-deficit target. The government, therefore, is asking doctors to delay pay hikes that threaten to jeopardize deficit-cutting measures proposed in Tuesday's budget.
"The doctors are receiving important wage increases in the order of 10 or 11 per cent, which is considerable. There is some catching up involved here," Ms. Marois said. "But normally they should be able to make a small effort to help us."
Health Minister Réjean Hébert wouldn't say how much the government was planning to save by extending the contracts with the general practitioners and the medical specialists but insisted that it didn't involve reopening the agreement.
"We will not change the contract," Mr. Hébert said.
Louis Godin, the head of Quebec's federation of general practitioners, said he was willing to sit down with the government but remained skeptical. It has taken Quebec doctors years to reach an agreement that will bring salaries closer to the Canadian average, he said, and any attempt to delay the process would be unacceptable.
"As far as we are concerned it is clear that we will never accept to extend the provisions of the contract beyond the date set in the agreement, which is 2016, and the general provisions of the deal will have to be respected," Dr. Godin said. Physicians were open to examine measures that may improve the performance of family doctors and access to patient care over the course of the agreement, he said. However, doctors have yet to receive any concrete proposals from the government.
Tuesday's provincial budget revealed that the contract awarded to doctors was one of two major obstacles in the way of balancing the budget. The other involved the rapid growth in the repayment of capital and interest on major infrastructure projects. Together, the two budgetary items represented a whopping 60 per cent of the total increase in government spending over the next two years.
"If nothing is done, these commitments will lead to spending growth in excess of the objectives needed to achieve and maintain fiscal balance," the document entitled Budget Plan: 2013-2014 stated.
The PQ government announced it will slash capital investments by $1.5-billion a year over the next five years and impose severe belt-tightening measures on most ministries, agencies and Crown corporations. But it also wants doctors to carry part of the burden by spreading wage increases and adjustments over a longer period of time. The contract agreement signed in 2011 included measures to considerably reduce the salary gap between lower-paid Quebec physicians and those in other provinces by 2016. The government wants the deal extended to 2018 or 2019 and to spread the negotiated wage increases over a longer period of time.
Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau said that the government has no intention of legislating changes to the contracts. He said he wanted to avoid a confrontation with doctors and pleaded with them to approach the exercise in a spirit of co-operation.
"There is no unilateralism here. We are not going to break the contracts," Mr. Marceau said. "If we could come to an agreement with the doctors' federations, we would spread over time the wage increases that bring salaries up to par with what is paid in other provinces. If we could spread these increases over a longer period of time, it would give us some breathing room."