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Ontario doctors charge Liberals with using bad faith bargaining tactics

Ontario is poised to introduce radical changes to the way hospitals are funded, adjusting their budgets to the number of patients and quality of service.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail/Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario Medical Association has escalated its fight with the province by using the courts to accuse the government of negotiating in bad faith.

The OMA announced on Tuesday that it is launching a Charter challenge and asking the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to review the government's "bad faith" bargaining tactics. The OMA, which bargains on behalf of the province's 25,000 doctors, said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires governments to negotiate in good faith.

The association argues that the government failed to live up to this obligation by imposing fee cuts that will hurt patients and make it difficult for the province to attract new doctors. Talks between doctors and the province broke down last month after the government rejected the OMA's request to hire a conciliator and unilaterally imposed fee cuts on services provided by high-paid specialists such as cardiologists and radiologists.

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"They've put us in a position where we're left with no other options," OMA president Doug Weir said at a news conference. "The only way we're ever going to get to a collaborative relationship is if they deal with us in a fair fashion that will benefit patients."

Health Minister Deb Matthews said she is disappointed with the latest move by the OMA.

"I think the public expects the government and the OMA to sit down in a boardroom, not in a courtroom," she said at a separate news conference on Tuesday. "They expect us to focus on patient care and not lawsuits."

Doctors made great gains during the Liberals first eight years in office, Ms. Matthews said. But strapped with a $15-billion deficit, the government needs physicians – and all public-sector workers – to agree to a two-year wage freeze, she said. The province provides $11-billion a year for doctors' compensation, about 10 cents of every dollar it spends.

"We have increased doctors' compensation by 85 per cent in eight years," Ms. Matthews said. "What we're saying is that's all we can afford right now. We can't spend any more than that on physician compensation."

Dr. Weir said the OMA would return to the bargaining table if the government appoints a conciliator. And the fact that the OMA is launching a court challenge, he said, does not stop the government from appointing a conciliator.

"We need to work together. We can't have bureaucrats cutting fees arbitrarily and think it's not going to hurt health care," Dr. Weir said.

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The standoff between doctors and the province comes as the government grapples with a nearly $15-billion deficit. The government wants to cap fees for physician services at $11-billion in a bid to free up more resources for home care to keep seniors in the community longer.

New Democratic Party health critic France Gélinas also urged the government to bring a conciliator to the table.

"The minister and her government seem to be kind of happy to play the blame game, yet a very simple step would go a long way to bring the two sides together," she said.

Ms. Matthews said the government has been very clear about the need to rein in growth in health-care spending. She also expressed doubts that the OMA would resume talks with the province if a conciliator was involved.

"Trust me, the issue is not a conciliator," she said. "The issue is, is there more money to spend on physicians? The answer to that was and remains no, there is no more money for doctors."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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