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McGuinty government talks tough to Ontario doctors

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is seen in this 2011 file photo.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is targeting doctors, accusing them of distributing erroneous information about a proposed wage freeze for public-sector workers that is key to eliminating the province's multibillion-dollar deficit.

Fresh from its fight with elementary teachers, the government sparked a showdown with doctors on Thursday when Health Minister Deb Matthews called an impromptu news conference to, in her words, set the record straight. She was responding to a communiqué the Ontario Medical Association sent to its members a day earlier, saying each doctor's pay would decline by almost 16 per cent if total funding for services was capped at current rates over four years.

The tough talk leaves Premier Dalton McGuinty fighting with the two groups he has staked his government's reputation on: health care and education. The confrontational tone is also a departure for a government renowned for restoring labour harmony in Ontario.

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But with the province facing a $15.3-billion deficit, the McGuinty government is under enormous pressure to rein in program spending. Public-sector wages alone account for 50 cents of every dollar in spending. The government renewed its call in last month's budget for a voluntary wage freeze for public-sector workers who bargain collectively. It is turning up the heat because a similar call in 2010 went largely unheeded by labour leaders.

Ms. Matthews reminded doctors that there is no money in the budget for wage increases.

"I cannot look a senior in the eye and say, 'Sorry, you're going to have to make do with less because I decided instead to give physicians a raise,'" she told reporters. "I'm not going to do that."

The province's doctors have been in contract talks with the government since February. OMA President Stewart Kennedy said the news conference took him by surprise.

"This is unusual given that we continue to work closely with the government to achieve an agreement," Dr. Kennedy said in a statement.

Ms. Matthews, sounding much less conciliatory, said doctors in Ontario are the best paid in the country, with payments averaging $362,000 in fiscal 2011-12, up from $220,000 in 2003-04, the year the Liberals took office.

The OMA communiqué says freezing the pay of doctors will be "very challenging, if not impossible" because of the province's growing population. Doctors will be working harder and providing more services for the same pay, it says – hence, the 16-per-cent cut.

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"The OMA sent to 25,000 people a pretty misleading document that misrepresents what our budget is all about," Ms. Matthews said. "We are not cutting compensation to physicians."

What the government is essentially trying to do is purchase more services from doctors without increasing their overall funding, according to sources close to the talks. This involves seeking fee reductions for several medical procedures, including cataract surgeries and radiology, which have not fallen in lockstep with improvements in technology. The government is also looking at capping the number of some procedures, such as knee replacements, the sources said.

Ms. Matthews said doctors have to take a pay freeze to preserve improvements to health care, including shorter waiting times for medical procedures. It was the same ultimatum that Education Minister Laurel Broten delivered to the province's elementary teachers this week: agree to wage freezes or risk losing all the gains made in education during the Liberals' eight years in office.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said at a separate news conference on Thursday that he plans to defy Ms. Broten and negotiate with individual school boards instead of with the government at the provincial bargaining table.

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