Simons: Premier and AMA both fumbling doctors’ wage football

 By Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal February 7, 2013

EDMONTON – Doctors are supposed to be good at analyzing symptoms and making diagnoses. Politicians are supposed to be good at politics.

But to judge by the “negotiations” between the Alberta Medical Association and Redford government, neither Alberta’s physicians nor its political leaders have a very firm grasp on such skills.

If there’s been a strategic error to make in the past few months, the AMA seems to have made it.

Two years ago, then-AMA president P.J. White threw his very public support behind Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative leadership rival Gary Mar. The AMA actually sent out Mar campaign material, inviting doctors to take part in a Mar-sponsored forum. That tactic backfired, when Mar, the “sure thing” front-runner, lost to Redford in a dramatic upset.

The AMA followed that strategic blunder with an even bigger one, when it took out ads attacking the Tories in the midst of the provincial election campaign. The association insisted the ads were non-partisan. Nonetheless, they were cautioned by the province’s chief electoral officer for their activities.

Whatever the AMA’s intentions, it’s clear from the waspish tone of the election-time correspondence between Alison Redford the AMA’s then-president, Linda Slocombe, that Redford perceived the AMA to be supporting the Wildrose Party.

It’s perfectly possible to view the AMA’s anti-Tory election ads, not as an effort to get the Danielle Smith elected, but as a brave, disinterested, democratic effort to speak truth to power. Nonetheless, when Alberta voters defied the predictions of pollsters and pundits and returned Redford to power, the appearance that the association had campaigned on behalf of the Wildrose turned into a strategic liability.

(To put it more colourfully? In this province, if you try to bring a government down, you’d better succeed — or run the risk of blow-back.)

The AMA’s quandary now isn’t just that the lobby group misdiagnosed the province’s political symptoms. It has also misjudged the public mood.

Back in the Klein era, the province’s physicians successfully positioned themselves as champions of public health care and public hospital services. Public sympathy was with them.

Not this time. In these contract negotiations, the AMA has failed to make the case that it is acting in the best interests of Albertans. Somehow, the public debate has become focused on physician compensation, not patient care.

It’s just not very persuasive to ordinary Albertans for the AMA to argue that Alberta MDs are only paid 14 per cent more than the national average, not 20 per cent — not when physician compensation makes up 8.5 per cent of the strained provincial budget.

The doctors’ PR position hasn’t been helped by the twists and turns of the queue-jumping inquiry, set to resume Feb 19.

Instead of looking like the victims of political or bureaucratic bullying, some of the doctors who’ve testified so far have come across as entitled elitists who didn’t mind bending the rules to help their families or private patients.

And yet, as bad as the AMA’s bargaining tactics have been, the government’s strategy has been as bad, or worse. Alison Redford just can’t seem to shut up about health premiums, bringing them up again and again as a threat to counter the doctors’ salary demands.

This week, the Tories had what should had been a big political win, when New Brunswick premier David Alward came for visit, lauding the oilsands and talking up plans for a west-to-east pipeline. That should have been Wednesday’s big story. Instead, Redford chose to attack the AMA — pushing her own victory off the front page, derailing her own news cycle.

The average Albertan doesn’t much care about all this political posturing. As patients, we want to be sure our doctors are fairly compensated, so that we can recruit and retain the physicians our booming province needs. But many Albertans are also keenly aware of the looming budget realities — and of the need to reform primary health care. It may not be fair for the premier to blame the province’s financial woes on the wage demands of doctors, teachers, and other public sector workers. Yet economic realities have conspired against the AMA, at a time when there’s little public sympathy for big wage demands.

If physicians want a better deal, they’ll need a smarter strategy, one that inspires public support, not government resentment. If, conversely, Redford wants to look commanding, instead of petty and vindictive, she’ll have to stop rising to the bait every time the AMA sets out to goad her.

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