Rural doctors abandon communities in quest for more money

MDs use union strategies but disregard principles of solidarity and collective bargaining

More than 200 rural physicians and specialists have withdrawn services at hospitals in the North, the Kootenays and on Vancouver Island over the past two weeks after subjecting British Columbians to a summer-long campaign geared to solving legitimate workload concerns by only increasing doctors’ pay.

In their well-orchestrated efforts about being over-worked and underpaid, the renegade doctors have used union tactics and terminology while strongly opposing the formation of a doctors’ union and the responsibilities that would come with it. However, the doctors’ walk-outs are a far cry from legitimate job actions by unionized health care workers during bargaining rounds.

How is the doctors’ campaign different? First, HEU members and others in health care are represented by their unions, exclusive bargaining agents which together form sanctioned bargaining associations. Members abide by the collective bargaining process and honour the terms and provisions of their agreements. Specific procedures and time frames govern strike votes and notices of job actions. Essential services levels must be set through negotiations with employers. And the Labour Relations Board oversees it all.

In contrast, the rural doctors - or independent contractors - are not bound by procedures and protocols and answer to no one. They’ve rejected the B.C. Medical Association as their representative, opted-out of the existing BCMA/government contract and turned down a $40,000,000 deal brokered between the BCMA and Victoria earlier this month. They’ve withdrawn services - no essential services for them - and left it to other health care workers and the hospitals to deal with the consequences.

“B.C. doctors are already among the highest-paid in the country yet the rural physicians continue to turn down an offer that provides lavish retention bonuses averaging $40,000, and ranging up to $60,000,” says HEU secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt. “That’s more than most HEU members make in a year.

“And $40,000,000 applied to the nursing shortage would provide almost 750 more care aides and Licensed Practical Nurses to help ease the crisis and deal with elements of doctors’ workload concerns.”

A recent HEU poll, conducted for the union by McIntyre and Mustel, indicates that the doctors’ tactics lack public support. Fifty-five per cent of 506 British Columbians polled opposed withdrawal of services - only 39 per cent were in support. The majority favoured long-term solutions such as more community health centres, improved home support services and an expanded role for nurse practitioners and Licensed Practical Nurses over increasing wages for rural physicians. (Only 23 per cent felt that more money for doctors would solve the problems of physician workload, recruitment and retention.) And 52 per cent opposed doctors breaking away from the current BCMA fee schedule in order to negotiate new fees.

“HEU members can attest to the fact that it’s always difficult for health care workers to take job action,” says Allnutt. “But when some physicians blur the line between their interests as private entrepreneurs with their role as care providers in the broader health care system, there will be some public cynicism about their motives.”

Allnutt says that health care workers understand the doctors’ concerns over workload. He urges the protesting physicians to return to their duties and to negotiations, and to work with HEU and others to develop progressive and innovative plans to better deliver health care services to all British Columbians.

“It’s time to look beyond doctors’ incomes for the answers to improved health care in B.C. communities that include better use of the nursing team, community health centres, improved access to and increased levels of home support and reducing on-the-job injuries to health workers,” says Allnutt.