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B.C.'s anesthesiologists need to wake up to reality

Sometimes the most intelligent people can demonstrate the faintest grasp of reality. As a group, B.C.'s anesthesiologists come to mind.

As you may have heard, the anesthesiologists are threatening to withdraw their services for elective surgery on April 1 if they don't get their way in contract talks with the provincial government. The government negotiates with all doctors in the province through the B.C. Medical Association, but the anesthesiologists want to have separate discussions regarding their demands.

Of course, anesthesiologists aren't the only specialists in B.C. There are 38 groups of them. If the government agreed to make a negotiating exception for one, it would have to do it for all. In fact, that's one of the main reasons the BCMA exists – so the negotiating process isn't as unwieldy and cumbersome as it might be otherwise.

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But the B.C. Anesthesiologists Society (BCAS) doesn't seem to understand this. Nor does it seem to appreciate the economic realities facing governments today. The society seems to believe that whatever's good for Alberta should be good for everyone else.

But more on that in a minute.

The society's demands are unfathomable against the backdrop of what this group has achieved in the past decade.

The BCMA, the professional body that the BCAS suddenly doesn't trust to negotiate on its behalf, has managed to get anesthesiologists fee increases of 36.2 per cent over the past 10 years. That compares to just over 22 per cent for all other doctors. And that doesn't include millions in other side deals that the BCMA has been able to negotiate on the BCAS's behalf.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of anesthesiologists in the province has increased by just over 35 per cent, compared to an overall national growth rate in the profession of just 23.5 per cent. Meantime, the population of B.C. grew by only 11 per cent over that same period.

There are now 472 anesthesiologists in B.C. today compared to just 359 in 2001-02.

But these negotiations are all about one thing: money. B.C.'s anesthesiologists feel they are underpaid at an average of $340,000 a year. Yes, how do they get by? Luckily, they're helped by the fact that they incur little of the overhead most other doctors do.

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But that's not enough. The BCAS is looking toward Alberta, where those in the profession get paid about $65,000 a year more. You'll be hearing more of this type of complaining from unions and professional associations in the years to come as workers in Alberta get raises other provinces simply can't afford.

B.C.'s anesthesiologists need to come to grips with one simple fact: no one in the public sector is getting a raise. Have they not been following the teachers' dispute? Or nurses, who get paid a fifth of what anesthesiologists do? There are no raises for them. Can you imagine if the government made an exception with a group whose members already get paid $340,000 a year?

Anesthesiologists should be thrilled they managed to secure the increases they did over the past 10 years, putting them among the richest health-care professionals in the world. If anesthesiologists practising here can't live with what they're being paid, then I suggest they send off their résumés to health-care authorities in Alberta.

The B.C. government would not have any trouble finding replacements.

Those anesthesiologists contemplating walking off the job on April 1 should be cautioned, however: It may be a critical mistake.

While the government may not have any immediate weapons at its disposal to stop this job action, the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons does: It can begin revoking licences. And that's exactly what it's prepared to do.

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And leaders of the BCAS have been warned by both the college and the government that this will happen.

It's difficult to imagine a majority of anesthesiologists relishing the prospect of losing their right to practise in B.C. In fact, it's doubtful a majority support their association's negotiating approach.

The BCAS made a critical mistake by embarking on a course of action that didn't include a graceful, face-saving exit strategy. Maybe the government can help devise an elegant way for anesthesiologists to avoid being embarrassed.

At this point, it may be the best they can hope for.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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