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Lawyers put B.C. anesthesiologists on notice over potential walkout

Anaesthesiologists in British Columbia are threatening to withdraw services.

John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail

Lawyers for the province's health authorities are going to court to block a walkout next week by B.C. anesthesiologists.

Penny Washington outlined the plan Monday as she released a letter threatening suspension of practice privileges for specialists who walk off the job. Ms. Washington, of the Vancouver law firm Bull Housser, said the hope is to secure an injunction in B.C. Supreme Court to prevent a walkout.

The letter, released Monday, is being circulated to every B.C. anesthesiologist. The specialists are being asked to commit by 5 p.m. Tuesday not to walk off the job on April 1. The letter, Ms. Washington said, will inform the legal action by providing a sense of how many specialists may follow through with the walkout being engineered by the BC Anesthesiologists Society.

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While the authorities are not ruling out suspensions, Ms. Washington noted that using the tactic could cause more harm.

"It's a Pyrrhic victory if we suspended everybody and nobody gets care. Nobody wants to do that. We just want them to reconsider," she said.

She said it would take three days or less to get an interim injunction.

Anesthesiologists have been threatening to withdraw their services if they don't get a better deal in contract talks with the province. Through the BC Anesthesiologists Society, the specialists have suggested they are underpaid, and also raised concerns about staffing issues.

Since 2001, the BC Medical Association has negotiated compensation increases for anesthesiologists of 36 per cent, compared to 22 per cent for the rest of the medical profession. The average anesthesiologist earns $340,000 a year.

Ms. Washington suggested there may be divisions among the specialists.

"We're really hopeful that the position of individual anesthesiologists may be different from that of their stated executive," she said. "We don't know. That's why we're sending the letter to each of them."

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She said they should all have received the letter by Monday.

Robert Halpenny, CEO for the Interior Health Authority, said patients have been warned of the possible impact of the situation on their operations, and some procedures may have to be postponed. But Dr. Halpenny said planning has been a challenge because it isn't clear how many anesthesiologists will participate in the action.

In response Monday, Jeff Rains, the society president, decried what he called "bullying tactics" by the health authorities and government. He said he had been busy with medical duties Monday so had no opportunity to formulate a response.

"We will review this our lawyers, and then we will come up with recommendations for our members," Dr. Rains said. "Sending threats back and forth and using bullying tactics to get your way is not going to help solve this dispute."

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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