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Alberta premier rejects call to fire health minister over failed doctors contract

Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro speaks during a press conference in Calgary on Friday, May 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is rejecting Opposition calls to fire his health minister following a failed wage deal with doctors.

He says Tyler Shandro will now get back to the table with the Alberta Medical Association.

“Minister Shandro has my full 100 per cent confidence,” Kenney told reporters in Lethbridge, Alta., on Wednesday, when asked if he would consider replacing Shandro in the job.

“Being minister of health is always the toughest job in any provincial government. That is particularly the case during a historic pandemic of this nature, and at a time when we have to manage our costs.”

Kenney said his United Conservative government and the association will take some time to reflect on the results of a vote in which rank-and-file physicians narrowly rejected a proposed deal jointly brokered by Shandro and AMA president Dr. Paul Boucher.

“I know that Minister Shandro hopes to be able to sit down with the president and the representatives of the association in the near future to discuss a path forward.”

Steve Buick, spokesman for Shandro, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The medical association declined to comment.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said the doctors rejected the proposed deal because of the “abusive behaviour” exhibited by Shandro and his staff over the last year and that a new face is needed in the health job.

“Tyler Shandro, it’s clear, has burnt so much goodwill. He has lost trust with physicians across this province. I do not believe he can be the one to take this forward,” said Shepherd.

“Jason Kenney owes it to Alberta families to remove Tyler Shandro as his health minister and find someone who can repair the significant damage that he has caused.”

Shandro unilaterally tore up the previous agreement with doctors in early 2020, then brought in fee changes that ignited a public fight with the province’s 11,000 physicians _ all played out during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doctors began withdrawing services, the medical association sued the province, and the two sides swapped angry attacks on social media.

They eventually returned to the table and hammered out a tentative agreement that has now been rejected.

The vote was 53 per cent against to 47 per cent in favour. The AMA said 59 per cent of eligible members cast ballots.

Both Shandro and Boucher said in statements late Tuesday that they plan to find out why the deal failed and to work to rebuild their relationship.

Details of the failed proposal have not been made public but were obtained by The Canadian Press.

It specified that the collective baseline pay for doctors would remain static at about $4.6 billion a year over the four years of the deal.

Shandro has said fundamental changes to physician pay and work arrangements are needed to keep health care viable in the long-term.

The proposal did not make any reference to doctors being able to have access to third-party arbitration. It would have given the medical association the right to invoke non-binding mediation on key issues but, if mediation failed, the government would have final say.

Shepherd said he heard from doctors that no arbitration was a deal-breaker, because they could not accept losing it and thereby give the final say on all disputes to Shandro.

“They do not trust this minister of health, so this agreement would give an incredible amount of control to the health minister over decisions of patient care,” said Shepherd.

The province cancelled arbitration when it threw out the master agreement last year. The AMA had cited arbitration as critical given that, for ethical reasons, doctors can’t walk off the job to gain leverage at the bargaining table.

As voting wound down in the last two weeks, Shandro extended numerous olive branches to doctors, including a promise to never resurrect hotly contested changes to patient billing rules.

Shandro also issued a public letter to all doctors saying he regretted downplaying their frustrations and anger.