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Ontario Medical Association elects critics of Liberals as leaders

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) on Sunday elected Shawn Whatley, a small-town family doctor, former emergency-department boss and prolific blogger, as the group’s new president, effective immediately.

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Ontario's doctors have chosen as their new leaders a pair of outspoken critics of the provincial government, both of whom say they will endorse job action if the Wynne Liberals fail to grant their profession binding arbitration.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) on Sunday elected Shawn Whatley, a small-town family doctor, former emergency-department boss and prolific blogger, as the group's new president, effective immediately.

They also selected Nadia Alam as president-elect, meaning the anesthesiologist who has been the public face of opposition to both the Liberals and the old guard at the OMA will be in charge next year when Ontarians head to the polls.

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"Physicians across the province are very frustrated by the working conditions created by the government's unilateral action," Dr. Alam said. "I think job action should be seen as another alarm bell in how the relationship between government and physicians has deteriorated."

Both Dr. Whatley and Dr. Alam said a potential labour disruption could begin with paperwork strikes and escalate to "emergency-services only" days, during which some doctors would close their offices and direct ill patients to the emergency room.

The election of Dr. Whatley, who practises in Mount Albert, Ont., north of Toronto, and of Dr. Alam, who works out of Georgetown, Ont., marks a changing of the guard at the OMA.

The organization, which represents more than 40,000 physicians, residents and medical students, has had a tumultuous year marred by infighting and the mass resignation in February of its entire executive, including its former president and president-elect.

The divide in Ontario's medical community burst into the open last August, when 63 per cent of physicians rejected a tentative fee agreement that had been backed by the OMA's board.

The deal would have provided an annual increase of 2.5 per cent to Ontario's $11.5-billion physician-services budget, but the No camp argued that was not enough to make up for past cuts, nor to accommodate inflation and a growing, aging population. The No forces also dismissed the deal because it did not include a guarantee of binding third-party arbitration – now the subject of renewed talks between the OMA and the government.

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Health Minister Eric Hoskins, himself a doctor, said by email that his government "remains committed to negotiating an interest arbitration process as the first order of business," and he described the talks so far as "positive." Premier Kathleen Wynne called to congratulate Dr. Whatley on his win Sunday.

Dr. Whatley was a member of the OMA board that endorsed last summer's tentative agreement, but he privately urged his colleagues to rebuff the offer. He quit the board in protest midway through his term last November.

"I did my darnedest to question [the tentative physician-services agreement.] I begged people to dig into the details and encouraged people to ask hard questions, but once the board makes a decision on something, like they did last summer … you can't speak out against what the board has decided as a group," Dr. Whatley said.

Dr. Alam was among the loudest opponents of the proposed deal, and of the OMA leaders who endorsed it. She was one of 25 physicians who in January signed a letter calling for a vote of no-confidence in former president Virginia Walley and five other OMA executives, all of whom eventually stepped down, even though the vote on their outster fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

With new leadership in place, Dr. Whatley said, the OMA is preparing for a fresh start.

"We need to have a fair, balanced partnership in health care right now," he said. "Docs are feeling beaten up. They haven't had a contract for more than three years. They're finding it increasingly difficult to provide timely, high-quality care."

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