David Milne
David Milne

The president of Doctors Nova Scotia is disappointed a new contract hasn’t been signed yet with the provincial government.

In an email to members on Tuesday, obtained by the Halifax Examiner, David Milne writes that updates have been quiet in recent weeks in order to allow the negotiations teams time to focus on talks.

“To say progress has been slow would be an understatement,” Milne writes. “We certainly thought we would be in a position to ratify a contract with the membership by now, especially following such an active month of discussions in January.”

Compensation for doctors in the province, which is split between a fee-for-service model, or master agreement, as well as payment for doctors engaged in academic work, currently costs the province about $800 million.

The most recent agreement between the two sides expired on March 31, 2015 and talks have been ongoing since May.

Last month the two sides spent “14 full days” talking about the contracts for both the master agreement and the academic funding plan.

While negotiating the two contracts at the same time makes the situation more complex, Milne also references the challenging negotiating environment.

“The pending wage restraint legislation, competing priorities for government dollars and the Nova Scotia Health Authority transition all impact negotiations, either directly or indirectly.”

Of those challenges, the one with the biggest cloud is likely legislation.

When the government introduced Bill 148 during the autumn sitting at Province House, Premier Stephen McNeil said one of the two biggest motivators was the threat of doctors going to arbitration. As the largest labour-related cost in the budget, the premier said the government couldn’t risk letting someone outside of government establish a wage framework for physicians.

In essence, Bill 148 acts as a sledgehammer sitting on the negotiating table. While the bill, which would impose a wage pattern on most public sector workers, has been passed, it only comes into effect upon proclamation. And while just about every union in the province is still working, or has yet to start work on a new contract, the government has to ability to proclaim Bill 148 on individual groups if it sees fit.

The doctors are unique when it comes to the legislation because the wage pattern it describes – a three per cent increase over four years – wouldn’t apply to them; instead, they would be barred from accessing arbitration for four years.

The premier’s office confirmed on Wednesday that talks remain ongoing with doctors and there are no plans at this time to proclaim Bill 148. The premier has previously said, however, that the minute a group indicates an intention to call in an arbitrator the legislation would be proclaimed.

According to Milne’s email, three more negotiating dates are booked for later this month and in March. The board of directors will meet at the end of the month, he writes, to “discuss how to expedite discussions and reach a deal.”

“I am personally feeling an urgency to see discussions come to a conclusion, and suspect some of you may be feeling the same.”

An official with Doctors Nova Scotia declined further comment while negotiations remain ongoing.

michaeltgorman@gmail.com @MichaelTGorman

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