Dr. Kallie Honeywood is one of four anesthesiologists at the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital

Dr. Kallie Honeywood is one of four anesthesiologists at the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital

Contract dispute puts anesthesiology services at risk

The West Kootenay’s regional hospital could see its anesthesiology service withdrawn.

The West Kootenay’s regional hospital could see its anesthesiology service withdrawn April 1, 2012 as the provincial society attempts to grab the attention of the province in an ongoing contract dispute.

Last week the B.C. Anesthesiologists’ Society (BCAS) said they would start withdrawing services to all but emergency and urgent patients after their contract expires March 31 if the province does not bargain directly with the society, rather than the B.C. Medical Association.

Dr. Jeff Rains, president of the BCAS, said the society voted 98 per cent in favour of the move, meaning more than 72,000 B.C. residents now wait-listed for surgery could have a longer wait in the New Year.

Although there are three months before the contract expires, Dr. Rains said the society wanted to give the province enough time to agree to a process to address the issues coming forward from the society.

Currently, the province has refused to negotiate directly with the society, preferring to use third-party group B.C. Medical Association (BCMA). However, months-long negotiations between the BCMA and government have been classified as “rocky at times.”

“None of us want to do this, none of us want to withdraw our services, especially in a small community like Trail,” Dr. Rains said.

“But what other options do we have? You can’t force someone to come into a room and talk with you.”

He also could not confirm if the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital anesthesiologists would withdraw their services if the April 1 deadline passed and no contract was in place.

“I don’t know what is going to happen on an individual basis,” said Dr. Rains.

“We’re not a union. The anesthesiologists across the province said they wanted to have this process with the government, they wanted to address the issues we raised and they voted 98 per cent in favour of that.”

Even though most family doctors and specialists entrust the BCMA to negotiate on their behalf, anesthesiologists say they have lost faith in the BCMA. The former chief of surgery for KBRH, Andre De Greef, said the move affects all of the province’s doctors, whose contracts are up for renewal April 1 and are now locked in negotiations.

“A lot of doctors don’t believe the anesthesiologists are doing it the correct way. They feel we should stay together as one big group and negotiate,” he said. “It’s a political game at this stage.”

He added that if the anesthesiologists tried to withdraw services they would simply be legislated back to work.

Meanwhile, the province’s Health minister Mike de Jong said the government prefers to negotiate “through the auspices of the BCMA” than directly with BCAS.

At issue is a claim by anesthesiologists — who are paid a fee for service — they are the lowest paid and hardest working in Canada, while the province says they aren’t.

As well, anesthesiologists say their dispute is also about recruitment, retention and shortages, while de Jong claims there are vacancies across the province. At KBRH the Department of Anesthesia is short one anesthesiologist, and a seven-month recruitment process has not turned anyone up for the permanent, full-time position.

“I know there are people out there who would love the Kootenay lifestyle and the work that we do here, but we can’t seem to attract people to British Columbia,” said Dr. Kallie Honeywood, with KBRH’s Department of Anesthesia. “So there is a shortage.”

The provincial government spends about $115 million a year on fees for anesthesiologists. Anesthesiologists provide services to more than 500,000 patients each year in B.C.

“We’re not asking for anything more than this: give us a process,” said Dr. Rains. “If we can’t come to an agreement, then give us binding arbitration. We are only asking to be treated in a fair manner like anyone else in B.C. would expect to be treated, and not have a third party negotiator be forced upon us.”

The clash between the parties was made public last week because of rising tensions that the doctors’ five-year contract expires in March, 2012.

The BCAS’s former president, Dr. James Helliwell, resigned in November, alleging the province was putting patients at risk by refusing to resolve his group’s concerns.