“They enacted Bill 21 and tore up the contract before it could go to binding arbitration, because it never, ever had any intent to negotiate. I will never trust this government in anything that they say,” said Dr. Michelle Warren during a Feb. 23 town hall meeting in Sundre, eliciting a loud round of applause from about 200 people.
She was joined by husband, colleague and partner Dr. Rob Warren, who together run the Moose and Squirrel Medical Clinic, along with their team as well as other local physicians at the Sundre Community Centre for the town hall meeting with very few vacant seats.
“It’s unprecedented, we’re in new territory right now,” said Rob Warren.
“The reality is the government passed a law last year that gave the minister the ability to tear up the contract,” he said, adding there has never before been a precedent like it in the country, and that the Alberta Medical Association is preparing a legal challenge.
“This is the first time since the Canada Health Act came about that anything like this has occurred — physicians in Alberta are currently without a valid contract,” said Michelle Warren, adding the association has no intention of idly standing by.
“We have a labour law argument, it will be going to court, absolutely. It’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint,” she said.
Having grown up in Claresholm, Michelle Warren said she identifies as a small-town girl with a passion for rural health care.
“I believe in a very simple tenant, which is your word is your bond — if you say something, then you follow through with it,” she said.
Expressing dismay at a government that would pass such a bill in the absence of good faith bargaining, she said the health ministry ignored everything the association had offered, which included reductions.
“The government would not hear of it,” she said.
Rob Warren said his frustration stemmed from the manner in which the government made its decision without meaningfully seeking advice from experts who know the system inside and out.
“There are ways to save money, perhaps even improve the care that we’re getting,” he said.
“Instead, they’re going for a quick win.”
He said the Moose and Squirrel Medical Clinic has developed an efficient business model that costs the government less than many clinics in Alberta.
“Talk to us, let us help. Because I don’t want to pay any more taxes than you do.”
Citing information from the Alberta Health website, he said among the announced changes is the reduced payment for time doctors spend with patients. The move, according to the government, will save $197 million a year, he said.
“I’m not sure I believe that, I guess time will tell. But let’s assume that’s true,” he said.
Accounting for 4.3 million Albertans, he said that cost breaks down to a savings of some $3.80 per month per Albertan.
“That seems very shortsighted to me to be making such a drastic change to the way we provide health care, for the price of a Starbucks cup of coffee,” he said.
Michelle Warren also pointed out that information provided by the minister of health and Alberta Health to explain the cuts amounts to little more than cherry-picked data that paints a skewed, one-sided picture.
“According to those (government’s) graphs, there are only three provinces in all of Canada: Alberta, Ontario and B.C.,” she said.
However, she said analysis of data obtained from Canadian Institute for Health Information reveals Alberta is about average for health-care spending in Canada.
“It doesn’t look that way if you only look at selected data.”
Sundre resident Robert Dales was among numerous people to speak up, expressing his appreciation for the physician who works diligently to address his health concerns.
“I make an appointment to go see her, and it might take a month, that’s fine,” said Dales, who attended the meeting with his wife Heather.
“I book an appointment to get my prescriptions renewed but by the time a month comes up, there’s a number of things that come up. And I spend time talking with her and get results,” he said.
“If I have to keep booking appointments, I’m never going to get anywhere.”
Dr. Carly Crewe said that was an accurate description of what’s to come.
“We’ll do our absolute best to care for your issues in 10 minutes, but unfortunately, a lot of them will be deferred to more appointments, and more appointments.”
Responding to a point about cost of health care, Crewe cited research conducted by the University of Alberta that determined a substantial savings in hospital expenses for every dollar invested in primary care.
Tom Mennear, former owner of the IGA, praised the physicians for fighting for health care.
“We really appreciate you doctors in our community,” said Mennear.
Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Jason Nixon -- who could not attend as he was in Ottawa -- is by many constituents considered “the best thing since sliced bread,” he said, adding the minister of environment and parks has an influential voice in the government.
“Should we be pushing him for a new health minister?”
Mennear said he is not shy about visiting Nixon’s constituency office at the Corner Brook offices and urged others to do so as well.
“I go up to his office quite often, but I would like to see more of you people at his office, line up and tell him what your concerns are. Push it, and don’t back off,” he said.
“Maybe we could even push for him to be the minister of health the next time around!”
Rob Warren agreed that Nixon has been an asset to the community, but said the louder the chorus from the public, the more compelling a case the MLA can present to the health minister.
“It’s got to come from us,” he said.
Among the last of many people to comment was Douglas McCullough, who lives on an acreage east of Sundre.
"There is a lesson in raw politics," said McCullough.
"When you respond to Jason Nixon’s office, he might recognize that the one thing that a politician needs is to be re-elected, and to point out to him that there is a very slender thread of support, which will start to vanish the first time a mother and a child dies on the way to the hospital.”
Pausing briefly to loud applause, he continued, “or one of (our) elder citizens dies on the way to Olds because they can’t get there in time. Every single one of those emergencies will go toward cutting the thread of his support, and the support for his government.”