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Anesthesiologists in B.C. announce the withdrawal of services over a continuing dispute over staffing and compensation.

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The B.C. government's plan to limit health-care spending increases to 3 per cent faces new pressure, as the province's anesthesiologists join nurses in calling for new hires.

The B.C. Anesthesiologists' Society held a news conference Tuesday to update its withdrawal of elective services, planned for April 1. The society has raised concerns about compensation and staffing levels.

Jeff Rains, the society's president, said the province needs not only to replace aging anesthesiologists who will soon retire, but to hire more doctors altogether. His comments came one day after the B.C. Nurses' Union demanded 2,000 additional nurses be brought onboard.

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In its budget, released last month, the provincial government committed to hikes of 3 per cent going forward – the lowest since 2004, when the rate was 1 per cent.

Health Minister Mike de Jong told reporters Tuesday that the number of anesthesiologists in B.C. has grown at a greater rate than the number of general practitioners. He said the average full-time anesthesiologist earns a salary of $340,000.

The ministry released a briefing note, prepared by the B.C. Medical Association and dated March 1, that said since 2001 the BCMA has negotiated general compensation increases for anesthesiologists that exceed those of the rest of the profession – 36 per cent versus 22 per cent.

An agreement signed by the province, the BCMA and the society in 2009 provided approximately $13.2-million in new funding for obstetrical anesthesia services. Since signing the agreement, the note says, the society has ignored protocol on how to resolve outstanding issues and guidelines on withdrawal of elective services.

Mr. de Jong said the dispute isn't about having the society's voice heard, as it has suggested – it's about "a group of anesthesiologists who want to hold patients hostage to secure more money for themselves."

"I would characterize the threat as unprofessional and unethical, but the College of Physicians and Surgeons [of B.C.]will rule on that," he said, explaining the province has asked the licensing and regulatory body to weigh in.

Mr. de Jong said the province is working on a contingency plan if anesthesiologists go ahead with the planned withdrawal.

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The college issued a statement Tuesday, in response to the society's announcement.

"It is the college's expectation that the B.C. Anesthesiologists' Society will attempt to resolve any compensation disputes with the Ministry of Health and the B.C. Medical Association," the statement read. It went on to say the college expects the society "to negotiate ethically and professionally, and avoid using access to care as an issue in a contract dispute."

Last December, the society announced it planned to withdraw if its concerns continued to be ignored. The planned withdrawal highlighted the bitter feud not only between the society and government, but also between the society and BCMA. The BCMA negotiates on behalf of the province's physicians, including anesthesiologists, and has been in talks on a new agreement for doctors.

On Tuesday, Dr. Rains said anesthesiologists simply want their seat at the table and have not received it. He said the process for raising issues through the BCMA is unfair and irresponsible.

He did not clarify how many more anesthesiologists the province should hire.

Of the job action, Dr. Rains said: "Nobody who urgently needs their surgery is going to have it denied from them. We will continue to provide cancer surgeries, cardiac surgeries and surgeries related to the heart, obstetrical procedures, pediatric procedures. But anything that's of a more elective nature, like a hernia surgery, will be delayed until we can find a solution to this problem."

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Nasir Jetha, BCMA's president, said it's unfortunate the society's leadership chose this route.

Dr. Jetha said his association met with the society last week and listened to its concerns. He said dozens of groups fall under the BCMA umbrella and, in the interest of fairness, he can't bring just one to meet with government.

"I have 39 different sections in the BCMA, who all have a seat with the BCMA and they bring their issues. And then the BCMA goes on to negotiate with the government," he said.

Dr. Jetha said he believes the relationship with the society can still be saved.

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria

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