NLMA, government continue public spat over stalled contract talks

·3 min read
NLMA president Dr. Susan MacDonald says her membership has decided to stay away from the bargaining table. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC - image credit)
NLMA president Dr. Susan MacDonald says her membership has decided to stay away from the bargaining table. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC - image credit)

For the second time in as many weeks the union that represents doctors in Newfoundland and Labrador and the provincial government are engaging in a war of words through the media.

On Tuesday, the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association invited the media to its St. John's headquarters to provide an update on the decision to suspend contract talks with government.

"The NLMA is calling on government of Newfoundland and Labrador to get serious about recruitment and retention of physicians and the plight of 99,000 patients without a family doctor," said NLMA president Dr. Susan MacDonald.

After four years without a contract, and 10 months of negotiations on a new one, the NLMA called off the latest round of contract talks earlier this month and said it intended to ask its membership what the association should do next.

Through a series of town halls Oct. 19-21, MacDonald said, the association determined 99 per cent of its membership supported the decision to walk away from the table and 94 per cent want to stay away until the provincial government commits to "meaningful improvement."

During Tuesday's media briefing, MacDonald told stories she's heard from exhausted doctors about people stopping them in public, or reaching out to them on social media, begging to be taken on as patients.

"Physician morale is at an all-time low," MacDonald said. "I've never seen physicians this despondent and fed up as I have now, and I've been here for 23 years."

MacDonald reiterated the NLMA's demand that N.L. doctors' salaries be brought in line with the rest of Atlantic Canada, and said the province's family doctors are the lowest paid in Canada.

The NLMA will conduct a formal vote on Nov. 4 to accept or reject the government's offer. - Dr. Susan MacDonald

The NLMA also claims the provincial government is trying to weaken it by changing the Medical Act, which would mean practising doctors wouldn't be required to be members.

MacDonald said doctors are putting their patients first and providing the best care possible — but it isn't easy.

"I'm hearing about resignations every day across this province," she said. "Every time somebody puts in a resignation .…that is a single physician saying, 'I've had enough.'"

Shortly after the NLMA's news conference, the provincial government held its own media availability.

Finance Minister Siobhan Coady started by praising the province's health-care workers and their work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then said she's "very disappointed" that the NLMA has no plans to return to the negotiating table.

"We're prepared at any moment to sit down with them to go through to review the concerns that they have."

Jeremy Eaton/CBC
Jeremy Eaton/CBC

Coady said she doesn't know what the NLMA means by "meaningful improvement" as a condition for returning to negotiations.

"I think I've been very clear in the media that we recognize the challenges with the fee for service family physicians and are willing to address them," she said.

"We just need to get to a place where we can actually have a dialogue and a conversation on how best to move forward."

While the NLMA calls the doctor shortage a crisis, the provincial government does not.

"I understand those levels of stress," said Health Minister John Haggie said, citing his own 35-year medical career in Newfoundland and Labrador.

He acknowledged it can be difficult to access care in rural parts of the province, a problem starting to increase in the metro St. John's area as well.

"I think that's what you're seeing driving a lot of the discussion now," Haggie said. "Access is my focus and that's the focus of these negotiations."

MacDonald said the NLMA will vote on the province's contract offer Nov. 4 but wouldn't speculate on what might happen if the offer is rejected.

"We haven't taken a formal vote about striking, so that's not something that I'm speaking to," she said. "But it is still a possibility."

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