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Ford government, OMA fail to reach negotiated settlement

The new Progressive Conservative government has had no more success in reaching a negotiated settlement with the Ontario Medical Association than the previous Liberal administration.

Talks broke off Thursday and the four-year-old contract dispute is headed back to arbitration.

The OMA rejected the government’s latest offer, even though the province had sweetened the pot, said a senior government official privy to the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.

The two sides are $4.7 billion apart, according to the source.

“We entered these talks in good faith. We offered the keys to the car to drive change and the doctors are not taking it,” the insider said Friday.

The OMA is essentially the union for the province’s 34,000 practising and retired physicians and bargains on their behalf with government.

The latest development in the contentious saga comes just weeks before a special meeting of the OMA’s governing council at which the thorny issue of “relativity” will be discussed. This refers to big pay gaps between different specialist groups.

On the low end of the wage scale are infectious disease specialists, family doctors, geriatricians, psychiatrists and pediatricians. On the high end are radiologists, cardiologists and ophthalmologists.

Physicians have been feuding about relativity on Twitter. Some specialist groups are worried that extra money in a new agreement could flow to lower-paid doctors.

“It’s clear there is a family squabble in the OMA, but we just want to reach a deal,” the government source said.

Negotiations were already at the arbitration stage prior to June’s election. But within days of the Conservative victory, the two sides went back to the bargaining table in an attempt to reach a negotiated deal.

At the time, OMA president Dr. Nadia Alam said the new government had extended an “olive branch” and the OMA was “cautiously hopeful” a negotiated deal could be reached.

“We’ve been burned by government before, but we really want to build a better working relationship with (the provincial government),” she tweeted at the time.

Many doctors supported the Conservatives in the election in the hopes of receiving more favourable treatment under a PC government.

One of those physicians was radiologist Dr. David Jacobs, who last week sent an open letter to doctors, announcing he had resigned from the OMA’s board of directors because talks had sputtered.

Jacobs is now leading a charge to break up the OMA so that specialists can negotiate with government separately from family doctors. It is unclear how much support he has. He could not be reached for comment.

Alam sent an email to members Thursday night, announcing talks had failed:

“Unfortunately, the government advised that its position before the arbitration board is the same as the previous government.”

Alam said the discussion around Jacobs’ proposal for a separate specialist negotiating body is heating up.

“I recognize there is a lot of underlying concern, fear, anger and frustration among members,” she wrote, adding she is reaching out to different specialty groups to hear their concerns.

Government sources said Health Minister Christine Elliott pushed for a lucrative deal with a 5 per cent increase in the first year and 3.15 per cent annually in the next three years.

That’s richer than the 2.6 per cent annual increase over four years the previous Liberal government had offered, and included a $715 million signing bonus on an accord expiring March 31, 2021.

But the OMA is demanding hikes of 6.8 per cent annually over four years.

“There were a lot of people at the highest levels of the government who were not happy with how much we were offering,” a government source said, explaining that the OMA’s demands were a non-starter.

On Friday night, the OMA disputed what the Conservatives had pitched. The medical union insisted the government’s best offer was 0 per cent annually for the first two years and 1.2 per cent annually for the last two years plus a $715 million signing bonus.

With Ford facing a large deficit and promising to cut $6 billion from a $150 billion budget, a hefty contract settlement with some of Ontario’s best-paid public servants would have been difficult to swallow politically.

It would also set a high bar for other health-care professionals in labour negotiations with the government.

Theresa Boyle is a Toronto-based reporter covering health. Follow her on Twitter: @theresaboyle

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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