It took 14 raucous months to strike a deal, but doctors took only two hours to seal its approval Tuesday night.
“Let me give you a hint,” Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association (NLMA) president Dr. Patrick O’Shea said as he leapt into a short happy dance before formally breaking the news to reporters outside the medical school auditorium at the Health Sciences Centre.
Between those who filed into the auditorium with pounding rain and winds raging outside, and those who participated around the province through teleconference, some 90 per cent decided with a show of hands that the provincial government finally offered them a good deal.
Roughly 400 doctors participated in the vote — 220 of them in person at the St. John’s meeting.
The special meeting was held to go over the details of government’s offer and the NLMA wasn’t sure at first if its members would decide to vote Tuesday night. If they didn’t, another four-week voting process would have taken place in January.
O’Shea said the NLMA would formally give government the news this morning and language will now be worked out for a memorandum of understanding.
“The members said ‘Let’s get on with it.’ I think the members recognized this was a great deal for us,” O’Shea said, describing the past months as long and tedious.
“It’s a Christmas present for the people of this province, for the members of our association and government, and we are very happy that the members have decided to ratify this.”
He said there’s a wishlist for negotiations that will come up in 2 1/2 years’ time.
O’Shea said there were a small number of doctors not happy with the deal and there were concerns about the formula that’s been used in the last few negotations to determine parity with other Atlantic Canadian doctors. But he said this will be reviewed.
“Every time you get 1,000 opinionated strong-willed people together, you can’t make all 1,000 of them completely happy,” he said of the province’s doctors.
“But I think they recognize this was a good deal for a lot of their colleagues, and hopefully we can go forward in the future looking at a much healthier health care system with a lot more physicians around. … This time we fixed some major problems.”
Although there were months of public wrangling, the tentative deal, which brings the annual physician services budget to $417 million, was only reached last week between the province and the NLMA.
Some critics have blamed former premier Danny Williams’ spitefulness for keeping a deal at bay, but O’Shea didn’t fuel that speculation Tuesday night, one which picked up fervor since the agreement was reached on new Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s watch.
“We had a new mandate to (finance and health) ministers (Tom) Marshall and (Jerome) Kennedy, and they negotiated with us, and I don’t want to speculate on why we got the offer we got.
“We’re very happy we did. We think the stars all aligned at the same time and I keep telling people maybe it was the spirit of Christmas that caused us to get this deal,” O’Shea said.
Both sides have said they agreed to work towards developing a framework for binding arbitration to resolve any impasses in future contract talks.
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.
The agreement also allows for a one-time investment of about $12 million for physician retention and increases will also be provided to help physicians maintain Atlantic parity during the remainder of the agreement.
A previous offer was voted on by secret ballot over 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 was closed in the new offer, which was unanimously endorsed by the NLMA’s board and executive.
Thirteen of the 14 medical specialists who resigned en masse Nov. 5 rescinded their resignations as part of the contract deal proposed by the provincial government. The other is leaving for personal reasons.
Both Marshall and Kennedy were contacted for comment on the doctors’ vote Tuesday night. Marshall’s spokesman said he couldn’t comment because he is travelling out of province and Kennedy’s spokeswoman said he was unavailable.