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January 31, 2003

OMA faces doctors revolt from within
Family doctors 'not represented'

ANN PERRY - TORONTO STAR
WORKPLACE ISSUES REPORTER

A physicians' group plans to ask family doctors next week whether they want to form their own union, a move that could split the Ontario Medical Association.

And the Coalition of Family Physicians of Ontario has enlisted some high-powered help in its fight for better pay. Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, has volunteered to advise the family doctors in fee negotiations with the provincial government that are set to begin later this year.

"It seems that our voices are not being represented well," said Douglas Mark, a Scarborough family physician and president of the 3,200-member coalition. "Currently, our voice is primarily through the Ontario Medical Association and we feel we haven't been getting fairness on many issues."

Mark said the Ontario Medical Association, or OMA, which speaks for all of the province's 24,000 doctors, is dominated by specialists and doesn't represent the interests of family doctors well. The pay and working conditions of family doctors have suffered as a result, he said.

The coalition plans to mail a survey to all of the province's 9,000 family doctors and general practitioners next week asking whether they should consider unionizing. It also will ask whether the OMA should continue to negotiate fees with the government on behalf of family physicians, or whether the coalition or a professional negotiator should assume those duties.

"We're just asking to be paid fairly and be funded with respect to the amount of work that's required and the responsibility, relative to other professionals in society," Mark said. Hargrove, who is not being paid for his advisory services, agreed that family physicians are "getting a raw deal."

But the CAW president wouldn't comment on the possibility of family doctors splitting from the OMA and forming a separate union.

"I'm not promoting it at all. That's up to them as to how they deal with their organization," he said. "My advice to them is on fee bargaining and how they may be able to put more pressure on government ideas on how they develop community support for their objectives."

Health Minister Tony Clement had no comment on the brewing doctors' revolt yesterday.

But OMA president Dr. Elliot Halparin said his association is "open and democratic" and is unfazed by the mutiny within its ranks.

"We're used to the fact that there are always going to be people who have different opinions," he said.

Halparin said the OMA has made several big strides on behalf of family doctors in the past year, including improved maternity benefits and fee arrangements for emergency-room doctors, many of whom are family physicians, and "is very interested in hearing what their problems are."

Those problems are considerable, Mark said. In 2000-01, family physicians' take-home pay was only 55 per cent of specialists' net income, and fewer medical residents are specializing in family medicine as a result, he said.

The coalition also takes issue with the OMA's handling of "family health networks," the foundation of the Ontario government's primary care reform that would see teams of family physicians provide round-the-clock care for a basic salary, and some fee-for-service pay.

Very few family doctors have signed up to staff these networks so far, Mark said.

Results of the coalition's survey should be available in about a month, he said.