Doctors in Prince George are wary about how a recently-negotiated deal between the province and the B.C. Medical Association will affect special incentives and funding they’ve had in place for the past two years. But a Prince George MLA is assuring them that local doctors haven’t been forgotten in the new deal.
Conflict over how best to spend a $392 million contract package led to suspended surgeries and closed doctor’s offices across much of the province last month – except in Prince George. Doctors here – under the banner of the Northern Medical Society – were content with a special, $10 million recruitment and retention package negotiated two years ago with the then-NDP government in the wake of the June 2000 citizens’ health rally at the Multiplex. That deal officially expired March 31, but health services minister Colin Hansen had put it on an indefinite extension while the major, provincial package was negotiated with the B.C. Medical Association. Those negotiations finally concluded May 30, leaving PG doctors wondering about the fate of their own, separate deal.
“We don’t have the details yet about how this will affect the northern region,” said Doctor Bert Kelly, vice-president of the NMS, on Monday. “The deal between the BCMA and the government didn’t make any mention of our special deal. But we do need to have something extra for Prince George and the Northern Health Authority.”
The deal negotiated last month by the BCMA narrowed the gap between the rest of the province’s doctors and the increased on-call rates and signing bonuses the special PG deal gives doctors here. Maintaining a differential that makes PG appealing to doctors despite its far-northern location is vital to address the shortage of physicians here, said Kelly. Since its inception more than 24 new doctors have come to the Prince George area.
“We feel (the deal) has made a huge difference in our ability to provide coverage, especially of specialists, for the Northern Health Authority.”
The provincial health ministry has recognized the need for rural communities to have a leg-up in recruiting new physicians when dickering with the BCMA over how to spend the added funding, said Prince George-North MLA Pat Bell.
Out of the total $392 million package for B.C.’s doctors, $67 million has been earmarked as added funding for rural communities.
“Once the BMCA has ratified the deal we will take that $67 million and decide how to divide it up for rural needs. And until that happens, the existing (Prince George deal) continues.”
Ratification of the BCMA deal is expected to take as long as 45 days from last week’s signing of the memorandum.
Whether or not Prince George is in line to get $10 million a second time hasn’t been determined, but Bell said there’s enough in the funding provided to maintain levels close to the Northern Medical Society’s existing recruitment package and increased on-call pay.
Kelly feels the improved drawing power the NMS deal provided for PG should be extended to the rest of the Northern Health Authority. So does minister Hansen, says Bell. Giving one city’s doctors special consideration created a “patchwork” of different deals across the province. Whatever arrangements are made for the rural funding will be applied in rural communities throughout B.C., including those in parts of the province who had looked enviously on the Prince George deal.
“We need to provide incentives to keep doctors in rural communities,” said Bell. “Or we’ll continue to lose services.”