TORONTO – The tense relations between doctors and the Liberal government eased slightly Wednesday, but the Ontario Medical Association still would not agree to return to contract talks.
Doctors are balking at the government’s demand for a two-year wage freeze, but both sides expressed optimism for the first time in weeks after a meeting between Health Minister Deb Matthews and OMA President Dr. Doug Weir.
“We had a very productive meeting and a good talk and agreed that we’ll continue to talk,” Weir said in an interview.
“We both agree that resuming negotiations is in the best interests of everybody, so we’re going to talk some more is where we left it.”
Matthews said the two agreed to have their officials meet soon to hammer out exactly what they want to talk about at the bargaining table before the OMA will agree to resume negotiations.
“I think the OMA and the ministry have a lot of common ground to build on, particularly our commitment to do a better job when it comes to primary care so that family doctors have a stronger role in our health care system,” Matthews told reporters.
“We need to work with the OMA to really achieve the potential of primary care.”
The OMA, which represents 25,000 physicians, walked away from contract talks after the government imposed $338 million in fee cuts for dozens of procedures and services affecting family care, cardiac care, diagnostic services, eye care and anaesthesia.
The OMA warned patients would have to wait longer for some services and claimed the changes would prompt some physicians to move elsewhere.
The government doesn’t plan to cut any more fees for doctors before they return to the bargaining table, said Matthews.
“We aren’t planning any unilateral moves at this moment,” she said.
Both sides agreed they wanted to “play nice” again following Wednesday’s meeting, said Weir.
“I think we’re both wanting to sort of (say) let’s step back and take a breather and not push each other too hard so that we can actually get back to the table,” he said.
“So I think right now that’s what we’re both doing.”
The cash-strapped government, facing a $15-billion deficit, wants a two-year wage freeze for more than one million public sector workers in Ontario, including doctors.
The province provides $11 billion a year for doctors’ compensation, which Matthews says makes Ontario physicians the highest paid in Canada, something the OMA disputes.
Weir said there was “enough movement” Wednesday to justify another meeting, but Matthews did not offer to add more money to the pot for doctors’ pay.
“I guess we’re going to try to find something creative and that’s what we’re going to leave for the people who work with us to work out those kind of details, and then we’ll see if we can move forward,” he said.
“There’s a sense we’re both wanting to move this forward, and it made sense to have another meeting with people who know more of the details.”
The OMA said the wage freeze actually amounts to a pay cut because the same amount of funding will be used to pay a growing number of doctors.