Bidding wars for doctors a problem and an embarrassment

First published: December 20, 2007

A dire trend is starting across Eastern Ontario, as our neighbours in Belleville and Quinte West just upped the stakes for doctor recruitment by offering some physicians as much as $250,000 to practice medicine in their hospitals.

There is no question this is going to create a bidding war amongst hospitals and communities, funded mainly by municipalities on the backs of property taxpayers, turning the severe doctors shortage in the area into a versions of “Let’s Make a Deal”. Not only is this bad for taxpayers, but also it also does a huge disservice to respectable doctors.

Recently, Quinte West council agreed to pitch in $100,000 as its contribution to a cash incentive package it hopes to use, while Belleville city council agreed to pay $150,000. Combine this with the provincial grants of $40,000 per physician and a few other programs offered from provincial coffers for specialists, and the amount quickly skyrockets.

But, these municipalities are not alone. Kingston is now looking at a hefty incentive package of its own, which is still being debated by its councillors. It even recently agreed to spend $13,000 to supplement a lease for doctor’s offices on top of any cash bonuses.

It won’t be long until Mary-Jo Bathe, the recruitment and retention co-ordinator, will be back in front of municipal councils in West Northumberland with hat in hand, asking for more money to create a cash incentive plan for our area. She will have little choice. Municipal councils already kicked in just over $250,000 to pay for a business plan for the recruitment and retention committee to hire Ms. Bathe and pay her salary over the next three years, along with a comparatively meager $30,000 for physician moving costs.

With about 6,500 patients without a doctor in West Northumberland and a prediction of nearly 20,000 in need of a physician within the next three years, the situation can only be described as a crisis. There are only 35 doctors in the region when there should be 55 to properly serve the area. But, the solution is not offering cash incentives. This kind of bidding war is a dangerous path, driven by the desperation of municipal leaders to find a solution to a problem that should not even be a municipal responsibility.

And, what is even more frustrating is the issue of doctor shortages barely registered during the provincial election this fall. Certainly, it was raised and discussed locally. Even Conservative leader John Tory gained some publicity when he came to Northumberland to hold a press conference highlighting the plight of Etta Young, the 92-year old Cobourg woman who has complex medical conditions and cannot find a local physician. Thankfully, she has found one. But during the election, the issue never got legs with the media or the public as a hot-button issue, compared to faith-based school funding.

Premier Dalton McGuinty is taking small steps, but this is not good enough. Increasing the number of spots in medical schools, providing minimal incentive grants and talking about fast-tracking foreign doctors is not helping. Regardless, Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman must put a stop to municipal cash incentives immediately.

It is also disturbing to see the reaction of the medical community. The Ontario Medical Association released a number of recommendations in the spring dealing with the shortage, with one of the suggestions being the use of incentives of both cash and other items to attract doctors and keep them. And, while the Ontario Medical Students Association recently complained about the high costs of medical school, the solution is not handing over wads of money on the backs of municipal property taxpayers.

Frankly, it is embarrassing to think highly intelligent people, like doctors, would even agree to this. Understandably, medical school is expensive and start-up costs for young physicians place a huge strain on them. And, there is no doubt these issues must be addressed. But, to ask municipalities to fork over massive sums of money, like some bidding war at Horde’s Station livestock auction is ridiculous. It is demeaning and below the image we hold of the medical profession.

The Ontario government announced late last week it was about to review its own programs used to recruit doctors to rural areas. Until then, Smitherman must place a ban on any municipal incentive packages. Local leaders must also call on the province to stop this practice before it becomes out of control. They should demand an immediate transfer of responsibility for doctor recruitment to the provincial level.

Health care is not a municipal responsibility. Yet, we fundraise for new equipment, build new hospitals and support countless medical services locally. This is a crisis manufactured by a lack of leadership and greed of some. There is only one prescription. Municipal leaders must not get sucked in, doctors must speak out against this kind of debasing treatment and property taxpayers must not be left holding the bag.

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