TORONTO - Ontario's doctors are warning that patients will have to wait longer for health care if the governing Liberals forge ahead with cuts to fees that doctors are paid — the latest salvo in the contentious talks over a new labour contract.
Ontario is short more than 1,000 doctors and 927,000 patients still don't have a family physician, the Ontario Medical Association said Friday.
That list will grow if the government succeeds in forcing doctors to pay for Ontario's growing health-care needs, which will reduce the province's ability to recruit and retain doctors, said OMA president Stewart Kennedy.
"With the current ministry's proposal to cut $1 billion from the physician health-care budget, that's going to have a major impact on further access to services," he warned.
"Waiting lists here in the emergency department, they're going to be increased. Waiting lists here in the family doctor's office are going to increase. Waiting lists for specialists are going to increase."
Labour negotiations reached an impasse earlier this week, with the OMA accusing the government of refusing to continue talks with the help of a conciliator.
The government wants to freeze wages for the broader public sector to eliminate a $15-billion deficit, but rejected the proposal by doctors to freeze their fees for two years and find an additional $250 million in savings, he said.
It's threatening to unilaterally cut fees and programs if doctors refuse to absorb the costs and plans to table regulatory changes to do so over the next few days, Kennedy said.
The OMA has climbed down twice during its talks with the government and now it's time for the Liberals to do the same, he said.
But Health Minister Deb Matthews won't back down, saying doctors must accept that the government can't afford any new pay increases.
She also rejected Kennedy's warning that patients would suffer, calling it an "absurd" and "misleading" argument.
About 93 per cent of Ontarians have access to a family doctor — 2.1 million more than when the Liberals took office in 2003, Matthews said.
"We've come a long way, and we are adding 550 more doctors every year," she said in an interview. "But if we pay doctors more that's actually going to reduce our ability to pay the new doctors."
The OMA offered to freeze their fees, but wants the government — which already spends $11 billion a year on doctors' fees — to pay for the rising costs of health care as the population ages, she said.
To eliminate the deficit in 2017, the Liberals plan to reduce annual growth in health-care spending to 2.1 per cent a year from the current 6.1 per cent.
The government took a much different approach with doctors in these contract talks than it has in the past, because it has to meet its deficit-reduction targets, Matthews said.
Doctors must find savings to pay for the increasing use of physicians, so that the government can put any extra money towards home care and community care, she said.
And the province shouldn't have any trouble retaining doctors when they're already the best paid in Canada, earning on average $358,00 a year, Matthews said.
But the OMA disputes that claim, saying Ontario doctors actually rank seventh in the country in terms of their fees, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Information.
Much of the money they receive from the province pays for overhead costs, such as staff and rent, said Kennedy, a family doctor based in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The Liberals warned last month that they're prepared to legislate wage freezes for the province's broader public sector — including teachers, nurses and civil servants — if they can't do it through collective bargaining.
The Progressive Conservatives want the Liberals to take it a step further and introduce legislation to force a pay freeze immediately to reduce the size and cost of government.
"That would be the fairest approach and everybody would know where the province stands," said Tory critic Monte McNaughton.
Kennedy said the OMA isn't currently contemplating any measures that would disrupt health-care services to put pressure the government.
"This dispute is with government, not with our patients," he said. "We will continue to deliver the high-quality service to our patients in Ontario."