Why are Alberta doctors getting the short end of the stick?

Blog, Healthcare & Welfare, Marco Navarro-Genie

In their dealings with teachers and doctors, the Alberta government of Alison Redford is showing preference to one group and derision to another.  But before we get into the arguments, let me state two things right off the bat: I have nothing against paying people well for work done well, and in my preferred world doctors and teachers would not be forced into state employment any more than lawyers and welders as a labour class would be.

All 40,000-plus Alberta teachers received a sweet deal in 2007 when then Tory Premier Ed Stelmach had his eyes on a soon-to-come election instead on the interests of most Albertans. Tory dealings with teachers has been dictated by political calculation.

A Calgary Herald editorial comment this week expresses it well:

Here are the percentage increases applied to teachers’ salaries as a result of Stelmach’s politically expedient but fiscally irresponsible deal:

2008 2009 2010 2011
4.53 % 5.99 % 2.92 % 4.54 %

The numbers are so because Stelmach allowed salary increases in the deal with teachers to be pegged to the Average Weekly Earnings. The deal is sweet because as people around the province lost their jobs and curtailed purchases in 2008, the salary of teachers rose to 6 percent in 2009.  And one should not forget that in 2007 the province absorbed the cost of $2 billion in pension liabilities for the teachers.

Of course, a salary-freeze for teacher contracts now proposed for the next three years, with a 2 per cent hike on the fourth year seems quite acceptable.

But if you have heard that the Calgary and Edmonton School Boards are baulking at it, you would wonder why this is a problem.

It is not a problem for the teachers union, the ATA (Alberta Teachers’ Association). The government negotiated this new deal with the ATA behind closed doors without the participation of the school boards.

2013 03 19 ATA News1 Alberta Premier Alison Redford, up close and personal with the teachers’ union.

The large school boards refuse to get on board with the deal because their budgets are being cut, because they don’t see where the money for the increases will come, and because they have seen most recent promises of a two percent increase for them vanish in budget constrictions. Bottom line is that the resisting boards have no faith in the government after broken promises.

But the secretly arrived at deal is not secret.  The contents are known, and in it there is the bizarre requirement that all school boards agree and ratify it.  In short, each school board would seem to have a veto over the deal.  But it is not clear whether the government will accept such veto situation and allow the large school boards in Calgary and Edmonton to scuttle their “peace-making” deal with the teachers.

The political hammer of the government dismissing an intransigent board does exist, but it’s more likely that the government will now enter into negotiations with the boards (secretly perhaps) to reassure them that the government isn’t downloading its fiscal troubles on them and there will be money for them to cover the government’s deal with the teachers. We’ll see.

Conversely, Alberta’s 8,000 doctors have had no contract with the government for two years. Their costs of running their medical practices have increased to the tune of 15-20 per cent in the last few years.  Those costs include employing qualified labour, purchase and maintaining technical equipment, space for their clinics which in some parts of the province is quite high, utilities, insurance, and so forth.

The government and the ATA seem worried about increasing the pupil-teacher ratios in schools but aren’t so concerned about the fact that 18-20 per cent of Albertans do not regularly have access to a family physician.  What is more, the changing landscape of American healthcare (Obamacare) will increase demand for doctors in that country, enticing more of our doctors to go there, and risking another flight of Canadian physicians the likes of what we saw in the 1990s.

In these circumstances, Alberta’s doctors may soon see their incomes cut in Alberta. The Redford plans calls for a $275 million cut to their fees.  To boot, medical doctors have been directly attacked by Redford and some of her ministers, playing on stereotypes that all doctors are rich, fat cats. Little is said about the services they perform and the outcomes they attain.

So why heavily favour teachers and cut from doctors?  It’s all a game of numbers.  There are five times more teachers in the province than there are doctors.  Plus, doctors often see themselves as far too gentile to enter into the political fray. Union bosses for the teachers aren’t concerned with such social niceties.

You may agree that 100k top salary for a teacher is needed.  But we need to ask questions about outcomes. What precisely are we getting for all that education money. At the nearest independent evaluators called universities, the quality of the over-all incoming flock of students seems to decline further and further each year. A generation ago there were more pupils per teacher in the classrooms but the quality of instruction was higher and we generated better-educated students.

It is not that a society like ours should not value its teachers. But whatever improvements and reforms the education system needs, and it needs many, more teachers and more money for teachers may not be the solution to correct them. Conversely, if doctors cannot sustain their medical practices, they will go elsewhere where they can. They have highly desirable and transportable skills that other jurisdictions need. And leave they will if we cut further their already shrinking state-paid incomes.

In the new game of maximising an always looming electoral game, turning away from doctors will have a direct impact on the level of health we deliver in the province. Do we need better student-teacher ratios even in the face of evidence that such ratios have questionable impact on quality learning, or do we need to keep the doctors that we do have and improve doctor-people ratios?

I realise that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, but the Alberta government is shaping it that way. There are more voting teachers than there are doctors.