A dispute between the Newfoundland government and the province’s doctors, which stirred up animosity on both sides in recent months and prompted more than a dozen medical specialists to tender their resignations appears to be over.
It’s now in the past, representatives of both sides proudly announced Thursday at a news conference to trumpet a tentative deal.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association (NLMA) will hold a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the latest offer with its members.
NLMA president Dr. Patrick O’Shea said the process to ratify the deal will be discussed then, but he’s hopeful that if a large number of members come out to the meeting and participate through teleconference, there will be no need to initiate a second four-week ballot process.
A previous offer was voted on by secret ballot during the past four weeks, with a Dec. 13 deadline. The outcome was an 86 per cent rejection rate because the deal didn’t address the two-tiered pay scale for medical specialists created by wage increases given to pathologists and oncologists in 2008. That salary gap has been closed in the latest offer, which has been unanimously endorsed by the NLMA’s board and executive.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale said the new four-year agreement, retroactive from Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2013, provides an additional $87.7 million to the annual physician services budget, representing an increase of about 26 per cent, which will result in all fee-for-service physicians and salaried general practitioners being paid at Atlantic parity.
All salaried specialists will receive the pay increase given to pathologists and oncologists in 2008 plus a one-time retention payment of eight per cent to be paid at the end of the agreement.
Dunderdale said, “the agreement allows for a one-time investment of approximately $12 million for physician retention.”
The premier said increases will also be provided to help physicians maintain Atlantic parity during the remainder of the agreement.
Finance Minister and Treasury Board president Tom Marshall said the $87.7 million to be added to the physician services base budget is about two per cent higher than the government’s previous offer.
“It brings the total in our compensation package to approximately $417 million,” Marshall said.
The last offer contained a compensation package of $410 annually.
Marshall said the one-time retention bonuses will be paid to physicians “if, and only if, they stay in the province to the end of the contract.”
Marshall said he believes the deal strikes a fair balance in managing the public treasury responsibly while acknowledging the importance of the work doctors provide to the people of the province.
He said the process leading to this tentative agreement was “sometimes an arduous one,” but he’s pleased to have reached this point.
O’Shea agreed, saying, “this has been a long and, at times, difficult process.”
He said the new offer addresses all of the outstanding issues.
The NLMA has been asking to have binding arbitration entrenched in its next contract as a means of resolving future labour disputes. O’Shea has said doctors would be willing to give up their right to strike in exchange for this provision.
While such a clause won’t be immediately entrenched in the next contract, both sides said Thursday they have agreed to work towards developing a framework for binding arbitration to resolve any impasses in future contract talks.
Marshall said a condition of any alternate dispute mechanism would be that no group can withdraw services during negotiations.
O’Shea appeared pleased that the government is entertaining this proposal.
“The commitment by government to work on a binding arbitration mechanism is a big commitment and we will make sure that is in place so that we will never have to go through this again,” he said.
Health Minister Jerome Kennedy said he’s optimistic the latest offer will help with recruitment and retention and “provide greater stability in our province’s health-care system.”
Kennedy said the province is committed to increasing the number of Newfoundland and Labrador residents who graduate from Memorial University’s medical school by increasing its complement to 84 seats from the current 64.
“That will start in 2013,” he said.
“We are spending approximately $5 million annually in retention bonuses for salaried physicians, the majority of whom are practising in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. We continue to experience a huge increase and interest in success with our various bursary programs for family practice, specialists and psychiatry.
“Since 2004, we have awarded 380 bursaries, each with a one-year return in service commitment to 210 MUN medical school applicants. This represents an investment in excess of $9 million,” Kennedy added.
The health minister also noted an increase in physicians working in the province in recent years. He said as of March 31, 2007 there were 985 physicians in the province, but as of March 31, 2010, there were 1,098, including 62 general practitioners and 51 specialists.