Braid: PCs mysteriously find money just before election to quell restless doctors

CALGARY — Wednesday's surprise pay deal between the province and the doctors raises an obvious question: has the government bought their silence during the coming election campaign?

"The answer is no," says Linda Slocombe, the plain-talking Calgary family doctor who is president of the Alberta Medical Association. "Our positions are the same. There will be ongoing advocacy before, during and after an election on issues we feel are important to Albertans.

"We still feel strongly about a health care inquiry into doctor intimidation."

Slocombe said some advertisements are being prepared right now for the AMA. She wouldn't say if they'll be political stunners like the recent one that started, "Just How Sick is Alberta's Health Care System?"

The full-page ads went on to complain about intimidation, the lack of a full inquiry into the issue, and the government recently imposing "political control" through a unilateral, one-year pay decree.

That was dangerous stuff to appear just before an election. The Progressive Conservatives still have wobbly knees at the memory.

"Doctors can be pretty damned intimidating themselves," one says ruefully.

So there's no doubt that this deal, which somehow wasn't possible for two long years, suddenly came together because an election call is only days away.

The government needed to calm the doctors, who in turn applied maximum pressure just when the PCs were most vulnerable. They are wily adversaries who understand each other very well.

None of that changes the fact that doctors have been intimidated, are correct about the inquiry, and never again want to be prevented from advocating for patients.

But the lack of a pay deal was one of their main issues, and that's solved now. They will "advocate," but I doubt they'll attack government with as much force as they did in early March.

Health Minister Fred Horne and Finance Minister Ron Liepert now have to scramble to find $181 million in additional pay, most of which isn't in the budget passed Tuesday night.

The irony here is that the Tories created new spending within 12 hours of passing a budget with promises of stable allotments.

The main thing for patients is quality medicine, and this deal advances the cause by providing stability and better funding in some key areas, especially primary care.

One area that obviously needs help is senior care, following the Herald's revelation that over seven years there were more than 1,000 cases of Albertans being abused in provincial facilities.

These are proven cases, not just complaints. The average of 142 a year is far too high, even in a system with 40,000 residents.

Remember, these are people under direct professional, publicly funded care. If they aren't safe from abuse, who is?

In the legislature, Tory responses to questions about this issue were pathetic.

Without acknowledging any problem, deputy premier Doug Horner accused the Liberals of insulting health workers just by raising the issue. This old tactic is long past its spoil date.

Dr. Chris Eagle, the CEO of Alberta Health Services, at least said he finds the cases "very disturbing" and takes them seriously.

Finally, the PCs are being justly blasted for delaying the release of a regular AHS report card on health-care performance.

This measure of crucial wait times has fallen into the government hands for "review." But the PCs say this has nothing to do with the election.

If you fall for that, you'll also believe there's no link between politics and doctors raises.

Calgary Herald, Thurs Mar 22 2012
Byline: Don Braid

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