LAC LA BICHE, Alta. — A mayor in northern Alberta says he has major concerns about 10 of 11 doctors deciding to no longer cover emergency and obstetrics services at his community's hospital.
Physicians from the Associated Medical Clinic in Lac La Biche said in a letter Thursday that they are resigning their hospital privileges effective July 31.
No one from the clinic returned calls for comment, but the letter said recent government funding changes require the doctors to focus on the clinic and stop working at the hospital.
Mayor Omer Moghrabi of Lac La Biche County said the hospital serves a large area northeast of Edmonton that includes urban and rural communities, as well as First Nations and Metis settlements.
"The closest (hospital) might be a couple hours away to Cold Lake or Bonnyville or 2 1/2 hours to Edmonton if it's an emergency," he said Friday. "We have an air ambulance, the busiest in the province, because it covers such a large area.
"Minutes count, never mind hours, when you have emergencies."
Moghrabi said the change could put a lot of strain on residents in the area.
The Alberta government walked away from bargaining with doctors and on April 1 pushed through changes to how they can bill for services.
That has led to a lawsuit by the Alberta Medical Association, which argues doctors' charter rights were violated by not having access to third-party arbitration.
Moghrabi said he's asking the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta to put through emergency resolutions asking the United Conservative government to get back to bargaining before doctors start leaving the province.
"During this pandemic, I don't think there's any other jurisdiction on the planet that's fighting with their front-line providers, their doctors and their health services," he said.
Steve Buick, Health Minister Tyler Shandro's press secretary, said the government is maintaining payments to physicians at $5.4 billion this year and it could be even higher due to COVID-19.
The province, he said, will ensure that people in the Lac La Biche area get the care they need.
"If these physicians choose to voluntarily give up their privileges in a way that would reduce access to care, we will ... replace them and ensure access is maintained,'' Buick said in an email late Thursday.
"We will also begin exploring longer-term solutions to augment and stabilize physician services in Lac La Biche and any other community as required."
Doctors in at least two other communities — Stettler and Sundre — in central Alberta have also decided to give up their hospital privileges to focus on their clinics.
Moghrabi said he's not worried about the doctors deserting Lac La Biche during the COVID crisis, but he is concerned that they will leave the province once it's over.
"What it does is paves the way for them to go to other jurisdictions," he said. "It took just about 15 years to recruit a lot of these doctors ... and we're going to end up losing them."
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said it would be difficult for Shandro to replace all the doctors.
"He's completely ignored the incredible damage he's done," Shepherd said. "For him to suggest that with the wave of his hand he can suddenly conjure up more doctors to replace the seven in Stettler, these 10 in Lac La Biche, the eight in Sundre.
"I can guarantee in the weeks to come we're going to hear of more."
Doctors have said for weeks that the changes would force hundreds of clinics across the province, particularly in rural areas, to reduce staff or close their doors.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2020
— By Colette Derworiz in Edmonton
The Canadian Press