Queen's Park Watch: Government Feud With Doctors Not Good for Anyone
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Queen’s Park Watch: Government Feud With Doctors Not Good for Anyone

The Ontario government and the province's doctors aren't seeing eye to eye on fees, and we may all end up paying the price.

The war between government budget-slashers and the province’s doctors is heating up.

It comes as no surprise. Back in February, the Drummond cost-cutting report recommended a wage freeze for doctors, and a reduction of specific fees where technology had rendered the related activities less labour-intensive. The report sparked some low-key bickering between physicians and the government, which quickly faded to background noise.

However, last week Premier McGuinty fired a direct shot across the bow with a quasi-extortionate press release suggesting that if doctors didn’t take their medicine, seniors and the housebound would suffer. He followed up on Sunday with an open letter to other provinces seeking support for his fee-cutting plan, getting some traction with provincial finance ministers who have already wrung maximum savings from cancelling Friday morning Timbits.

Physicians were unpersuaded.

The Canadian Medical Association took the bait, warning the premier that “imposing your views on physicians … is a leadership style that comes with great risk,” while the Coalition of Family Physicians and Specialists of Ontario went on nuclear alert, declaring a “Code Orange” and advising doctors to “explore options in more hospitable practice jurisdictions.”

It’s unlikely that Ontario’s syringe-slingers will pack up their stethoscopes and decamp like a swarm of lab-coated Okies. As the government has pointed out repeatedly, with average billings of over $350,000 annually, most doctors aren’t hitting the food bank just yet. (The Liberals should know—they’re the ones who handed out the generous raises back when the economy was healthier.) Besides, the fee reduction proposal isn’t unreasonable on the face of it. If technology has reduced the time it takes a doctor to perform a task from three hours down to one, it seems logical to pay them less money to do it.

Still, this is one group you don’t want working to rule; you don’t need your surgeon going on a latte run while your steaming brain is parked on a tin plate next to the operating table. And the oft-repeated Liberal contention that Ontario doctors are the best-paid in Canada is debatable. Finally, since it’s a basic tenet of our society that taking away anything from anyone, anytime, for any reason, is fascism or worse, there was never a possibility that the physicians were going to let this go without a fight.

And yet what we need to avoid is a fight. Both sides promise that if their needs aren’t met, Joe and Jane Patient will pay the price, and either could make the prediction self-fulfilling.

It must be a pisser for the premier to find that seven years of largesse toward public employees hasn’t bought him much gratitude, but he should recognize that the Jeckyll-Hyde shift from sugar daddy to autocrat is buying him even less.

The doctors should acknowledge that they’re well paid and understand that they aren’t winning public sympathy by pouting and mumbling darkly about opportunities in oil sands country. More importantly, they need to stop focusing on how much it upsets them to be yelled at by the premier, and start talking about how they see their role in returning Ontario to fiscal stability. Are they willing to make any sacrifice at all, or does the emphasis on process imply a bargaining position as inflexible as that of the government?

There’s still an opportunity to stop threatening and start talking. Here’s hoping both sides take it.