Let’s care for patients for their whole lives, not for fiscal years

Three years ago, the Alward Government team promised that “doctors would never have to sue them for attention and respect.” Today, Attorney General lawyers will defend the Alward Government’s recent attempts to cut and cap patient services. Doctors will argue that a short-sighted and impulsive cut to Medicare breaks the Government’s signed agreement with doctors.

After trying for months to get the Alward Government to negotiate with doctors, it was clear that the government had no interest in abiding by their existing signed agreement. While negotiating with us, Cabinet was meeting at the same time to cut and cap patient services. Since then, the government has done its best to convince the public that doctors aren’t willing to help, and that the cut isn’t so bad.

For example, the Alward Government equated their unilateral $20 million dollar cut as being “a couple of coffees a day.” Respectfully, we aren’t talking about coffee. We’re talking about health care. The value of the cut is 459,000 visits to family doctors, or six emergency rooms without doctors for a year, or thousands of hip replacements. No other province in Canada threatens a cap on their own citizens for care because most places realise that you can’t cap chronic illnesses on a spreadsheet and hope they go away. Doctors are always there for patients, so we can’t agree to a cap on patient services this year, and we can’t agree to a cap next year. We’d rather improve the health system than cut services for patients.

The mess this government has created was recognised around the country. Newspapers from Cape Breton to British Columbia have carried stories about New Brunswick’s doctors refusing to back down on the issue of ensuring patients have access to care. A national Globe and Mail columnist saw our situation and was plain-spoken: “Making a mockery of collective bargaining and refusing to negotiate in good faith is not leadership and it’s not good governance. It’s lazy and it’s a travesty of public policy-making.” Medical magazines sent to doctors nationwide have carried articles with other provinces’ doctors comparing their situations with ours: “what happened in New Brunswick won’t happen here.”

Despite all the national attention, nothing short of a court challenge will stop the Alward Government. We can’t trust more promises from the same team that negotiated across the table from us for months while they knew they were about to cut and cap patient services. So we will ask a judge for a court order that directs the government to respect their agreement with doctors. This is why New Brunswick’s doctors have gone to court – to see a 0% change in patient access this year, and to be clear with our own patients who are counting on us. We won’t cap your care. We won’t deny you service. And you should expect your government to share that commitment.

After this is over, we need to move forward together. A year ago tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the Alward Government’s public relations tour, where they announced they would incorporate the public’s feedback into a new health plan to guide the system over the long-term. When they asked for help, doctors answered the call. 400 doctors offered up concrete ideas to improve the long-term sustainability of our health care system. We were promised action by the end of 2012; then the beginning of 2013. Here we are at the one-year anniversary of all those meetings, the dialogue with patients, the consultations – and there’s no plan. We would respectfully suggest government look at our year-old ideas, most of which still apply today, and start thinking like doctors do: let’s care for patients for their whole lives, not for fiscal years.

Robert Desjardins, MD FRCPC
President, New Brunswick Medical Society