A show of support from those in the Pincher Creek area was heartening for the organizer of a parade and rally for healthcare.
Dr. Samantha Myhr is a family physician in Pincher Creek at The Associate Clinic, and one of the leaders of the Rural Sustainability Group there. There are nine physicians there.
She was also a coordinator of the June 30 Rally to Rescue Rural Health Care. Myhr indicated she had a couple of people counting the number of vehicles at the rally. She said by their count there were between 235-250 vehicles who came during a rainy, gloomy evening. Many of those vehicle had multiple people within them so exactly numbers of people weren’t available.
“It was a pretty huge turn out we had,” explained a tired Myhr on July 2. “(Oh my goodness) it was overwhelming; it was a pretty overwhelming show of support with the parade and people demonstrating signs.”
Myhr said she has talked to people about the event and were very support. When the announcement was made by Pincher Creek physicians that they would be withdrawing their emergency services availability at the hospital after July 31 of this year, there were mixed emotions from those she talked to but many were understanding of the doctors’ situation but were concerned for their own wellbeing and having to drive to Lethbridge for services.
The source of the issue is the government terminating an existing agreement with physicians as part of a cost cutting strategy for health care.
According to the Government of Alberta media release, the $60,000 cap on the Rural and Remote Northern Program (RRNP) was immediately abolished. Overhead changes announced earlier this year will be paused for urban physicians, while an extensive review by Alberta Health Services (AHS) with physician involvement is completed. The media release also stated rural physicians will be exempted from any changes permanently.
According to the release, medical liability rates for all rural physicians, including obstetrics, will be frozen at $1,000. Rates for all family physicians in Alberta will also be frozen at $1,000. Rates for all other urban physicians will range from a low of $1,200 to a maximum of $4,000. On-call rates for all rural physicians will range from $20 per hour to $23 per hour, increasing payments to more than 1,500 physicians who are on-call in rural Alberta.
The doctors in Pincher Creek are constantly on the go. She points for example to Dr. Jared Van Bussel, who is the only obstetrician, of not having family time; can’t leave a 30-minute perimeter of the community and is often 24-hour on call.
Myhr said they had a town hall meeting in March and that clarified the exact issues at stake. Doctors are frustrated with being blindsided by Health Minister Tyler Shandro, the lack of communication or tangible negotiation and subsequent loss of the recruit they had lined up to help with their surgeon.
“It came as a surprise to to people that physicians are a small business,” Myhr explained, and noted there are 30 people who work at the Associate Clinic. “There’s billing and ordering of supplies. The clinic understand that.”
Myhr said that cuts, especially during the height of the pandemic were perplexing. She helped tour around Alberta Health Services officials to show them exactly the challenges faced by physicians (i.e having to be experts in all issues with no room for just being a specialist, time factors etc.) a rural hospital and health care centre. While she doesn’t want to think these are increments into privatization of the health care system and it’s just not understanding what they do, but she is pessimistic about the government’s actions and motives.
“I hope its ignorance (of not not knowing rural challenges), but really, there’s no excuse for that,” added Myhr. “It was a unilateral decision and in retrospect, they were planning this for a while…it was negotiation in bad faith. It was a long time in coming.”
During the June 30 rally, Josh Kariath, a third-year medical student from the University of Calgary spoke about the disrespect he feels as a medical student and for the profession given by the government of Alberta. Kariath called it “negligible respect” for Alberta doctors.
“They do not want to enter practice and deliver substandard care to fellow Albertans. If health care was a priority they would be working with and not against physicians
He noted that a recent survey completed by 400 University of Alberta and University of Calgary medical students indicated that 79 per cent of those students were unlikely to pursue further medical training in Alberta; 91 per cent of those were unwilling to continue to practise in Alberta upon completion 87 per cent of current family medicine residents who are set to practise in the next one or two years, feel the same way regarding practising in Alberta.
Dick Burnham, the chair of Pincher Creek Health Professionals Attraction and Retention Society led off the rally thanking the committee, Piikani Nation, the local Municipal District and all residents in the area.
“I have watched our health services, and physician clinic become a crown jewel in our community and become a model for health services in Alberta,” said Burnham. “Tonight, you have showed your deep appreciation for our community, our hospital, and our doctors. You also showed we will keep fighting for the stability and certainty our doctors need to continue their tremendous work.”
The third speaker of the evening, Don Anderberg, the Mayor of the Town of Pincher Creek, called on the government to renegotiate the master agreement. The government has disregarded their calls to talk to the two parties.
He described citizens as being at best concerned, but it is far worse for others.
“I have had many conversations with citizens in our community who are extremely concerned about their health care options are in this community …I have seen their emotions from disappointment, to express extreme anxiety, afraid and frankly scared for their well being,” said Anderberg who added as a council, their questions of government have left them without answers.
Myhr echoed those statements.
“It is going going to be very scary in a couple of years,” explained Myhr July 2. “I think rural Alberta will let this government know what they think. I expect there to be more (rallies).”