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Ontario warned of doctor shortage if fee cuts go ahead

People wait to see a doctor in the Emergency/Trauma Unit waiting area at Sunnybrook Hospital on December 5, 2010.

JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Ontario's doctors are launching their latest salvo in their battle with the cash-strapped Liberal government over a new labour contract.

The province is short more than 1,000 doctors and 927,000 patients still don't have a family physician, the Ontario Medical Association said Friday.

That list will grow if the government succeeds in forcing doctors to pay for Ontario's growing health-care needs, which will reduce the province's ability to recruit and retain doctors, said OMA president Stewart Kennedy.

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"With the current ministry's proposal to cut $1-billion from the physician health-care budget, that's going to have a major impact on further access to services," he warned.

"Waiting lists here in the emergency department, they're going to be increased. Waiting lists here in the family doctor's office is going to increase. Waiting lists for specialists are going to increase."

Labour negotiations reached an impasse earlier this week, with the OMA accusing the government of refusing to continue talks with the help of a conciliator.

The government wants to freeze wages for the broader public sector to eliminate a $15-billion deficit, but rejected the proposal by doctors to freeze their fees for two years and find an additional $250-million in savings, he said.

It's threatening to unilaterally cut fees and programs if doctors refuse to absorb the costs and plans to table regulatory changes to do so over the next few days, Kennedy said.

The OMA has climbed down twice during its talks with the government and now it's time for the Liberals to do the same, he said.

But Health Minister Deb Matthews said doctors must accept that the government can't afford any new pay increases.

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The OMA offered to freeze their fees, but wants the government – which already spends $11-billion a year on doctors' fees – to pay for the rising costs of health care as the population ages, Ms. Matthews said.

Doctors should find savings to pay for the increasing use of physicians, so that the government can put any extra money towards home care and community care, she said.

"The bottom line is that Ontario is the best place in Canada to practice medicine," she said in a statement.

"A real wage freeze that helps us support more nurses, more home care and more mental health services will not change that fact."

Ms. Matthews insists Ontario doctors are already the best paid in Canada and earn, on average, $358,000 a year.

But the OMA disputes that claim, saying Ontario doctors rank seventh in the country in terms of their fees, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Information.

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