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Alberta government closing in on new deal to pay family doctors

The Alberta government says it’s closing in on a new deal for family doctor pay, but a physicians’ group says it must include those with small patient rosters.

The details of the framework announced Wednesday have yet to be hammered out, including specific rates. But the United Conservative government expects its new compensation model will make Alberta a leader in luring and keeping family doctors.

It comes after Premier Danielle Smith promised late last year to ensure every Albertan has a primary health provider by the next election, expected in 2027.

Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul Parks called the announcement “extremely positive,” but said doctors with smaller patient panels may stop offering important comprehensive care if they are left out.

“We don’t want that to happen,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

He added it’s too early to put a dollar figure on the deal, but said it could require hundreds of millions in annual funding.

“This is going to be a historic investment into family medicine care in the province,” he said.

For months, his association has warned that family clinics were being pushed to the financial brink.

Beginning in April, the association said $92 million went out the door as part of $200 million in federal funding over two years to help stabilize family practices.

But, under that program, doctors need a panel of at least 500 patients to be eligible.

That minimum has drawn fire, including from Opposition New Democrats, but Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said her aim is to encourage those doctors to take on more patients.

Whether the new agreement will include a similar requirement is up in the air.

“I would like to see the bigger panel sizes, but we are continuing to work through that with the Alberta Medical Association,” said LaGrange.

Parks said he believes LaGrange understands how important it will be to offer incentives to family doctors to increase their panel sizes without excluding them from the compensation model.

The government estimates there are 700 family physicians in the province who have fewer than 499 patients, while just over 2,900 have 500 or more.

The new deal is expected to see doctors paid based on things like how many patients they see and how many hours they work, but there is no firm timeline for when it will be finalized.

A rate review committee made up of Alberta Health and the Alberta Medical Association is expected to help make final recommendations to the minister in the fall.

“We’re committed to doing this as quickly as possible,” said LaGrange.

A recent report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information found the number of family physicians per 100,000 people in Alberta has been declining since 2017, to 119 from 130.

LaGrange noted the province anticipates more population growth this year, but Alberta is attracting new doctors.

“From March of last year to March of this year, we’ve had 500 physicians come, of which 215 are actually family physicians or rural generalists, so that’s good news,” she said.

Alberta NDP health critic Luanne Metz, in a news release, accused the province of withholding increased funding for physicians who, often for legitimate reasons, take a lower caseload of patients.

“Antagonizing physicians is not a way of encouraging them to stay in Alberta,” said Metz.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

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