The Ford government has not only angered doctors by pulling the plug on arbitration with the Ontario Medical Association, but now one of its MPPs has gone public in denouncing the move as well.
The Star has also learned there is a growing schism within government on the issue — with the health minister’s office on one side and the premier’s office on the other.
Binding arbitration, aimed at resolving an almost five-year-old contract dispute between the OMA and government, is scheduled to resume Saturday.
But the government revealed earlier this week it no longer plans to attend.
The OMA, which is the legally recognized bargaining agent for the province’s 31,000 physicians, says it still plans to participate, noting that arbitration legislation permits the process to continue even if one party fails to show up.
There is uncertainty over whether the government’s nominee to the three-member arbitration board will attend. Kevin Smith, who is also president of the University Health Network, was sent a letter from the government Wednesday, informing him his services were not required, numerous sources have told the Star
But the OMA contends it’s illegal for the government to “fire” its nominee.
Meantime, angry doctors are lashing out against the government with some warning of job action and others calling on Conservative MPPs and cabinet ministers to stand up to their own government on the issue.
The physicians charge that the Conservative Party wooed them for their support during the election based on a false promise to make peace with the profession.
Conservative MPP Randy Hillier said he has heard that message loud and clear from doctors in his eastern Ontario riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston. He said the Conservatives also promised in the election to resolve the dispute through binding arbitration and now have an obligation to do so.
“There is a substantial number of physicians who are very disappointed. They are truly expecting and wanting to have a good relationship and to have this dispute resolved through the mechanism that we agreed to,” he said.
“We made that commitment to resolve this dispute through arbitration and unless there is a better mechanism that all parties agree to, then we must uphold our commitment,” Hillier added.
The government earlier this week sent a letter to William Kaplan, chair of the arbitration board, stating it was withdrawing from the arbitration process because it “lacks confidence that the OMA can deliver on the outcome of any arbitration decision.”
Less than two weeks earlier, a request was made to Health Minister Christine Elliott by a group of high-paid specialists to suspend the arbitration process.
It was signed by radiologist Dr. David Jacobs, an outspoken supporter of Premier Doug Ford’s. He is spearheading an effort by a group of high-billing specialists, including radiologists, to break-away from the OMA.
The attempt to split the OMA followed the release of a report from an internal association committee, which recommended that high-billing specialists get paid less and low-billing ones get paid more.
A source close to government said the decision to pull out of arbitration came directly from Premier Doug Ford’s office.
Health Minister Christine Elliott has pushed for arbitration to continue but has been overruled by an official from Ford’s office, said the source who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.
A second source close to government acknowledged the internal rift.
“Given how this was handled, there is no way that the government is unified about this decision. Things have to get back on track, fast,” said the source, who who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the controversy.
The government is alienating physicians, the source warned, adding that the consequences could spell bad news for Ontario patients.
“The problem is that the consequences for the government and its relationship with physicians will be toxic.”
Press secretaries for Ford and Elliott have not responded to questions about the dissension between their offices.
On Twitter, doctors are discussing job action and OMA president Dr. Nadia Alam has said all options are on the table.
OMA lawyer Steven Barrett sent a letter to Kaplan Thursday, stating that the arbitration hearings “must proceed nothwithstanding the unlawful and bad faith attempt by the (government) to undermine the process.”
Theresa Boyle is a Toronto-based reporter covering health. Follow her on Twitter: @theresaboyle