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Widow of man who died outside Sylvan Lake, Alta., clinic warns cuts to physician fees could kill

As politicians crunch the numbers trying to strike a new deal that will hold the line on physician spending without driving doctors out of rural Alberta, the widow of a man who died outside the doors of a closed clinic knows what it really costs when

As politicians crunch the numbers trying to strike a new deal that will hold the line on physician spending without driving doctors out of rural Alberta, the widow of a man who died outside the doors of a closed clinic knows what it really costs when help isn’t there when it’s needed the most. 

“You’re playing with people’s lives,” warned Annie Boychuk, whose husband, Brent Boychuk, died outside of a closed clinic in Sylvan Lake, Alta., in 2012. 

Brent was 49 when, on Aug. 18, 2012, he started having trouble breathing. 

His daughter took him to a walk-in clinic, but because it was a Saturday the clinic was closed. 

They went to a second nearby clinic, but that doctor was out of town. 

“That’s where Brent collapsed, right there at the doors," said Annie, who struggles even now to hold back tears when talking about her husband’s death. 

Brent had had a heart attack.

Brent’s daughter desperately tried to save her father as she waited for an ambulance to arrive, but it was already too late. Brent, a father of four, was pronounced dead at the Red Deer Regional Hospital. 

“This could have been prevented,” Annie said.  

Brent Boychuk’s death added fuel to a growing call from residents in Sylvan Lake to have an urgent care centre in their community so help would be available when the people of Sylvan Lake need it most. 

Four years later, Alberta Health Services answered the call announcing $2 million in funding to expand the existing health centre and $2 million every year to operate it, giving patients in Sylvan Lake access to care for 16 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Since 2018, the Sylvan Lake Community Health Centre has been offering advanced ambulatory care for urgent but non-life threatening health crises from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

Annie said while it’s an improvement, her community – with a population of more than 16,000 people – doesn’t have 24-hour care, and she knows as well as anyone emergencies don’t stick to a schedule. 

Now, as doctors across Alberta voice concerns over changes to the physician fee guide that could push doctors out of rural clinics, Annie worries communities like hers may be left with less care when what they need is more. 

“We place our lives in these doctors' and nurses' hands," she said. “Don’t take away from those who give life a second chance."

The Alberta Medical Association warned changes imposed by the provincial government in an effort to restrain spending on physician pay – including adjusting how physicians bill for treating patients with complex needs, capping the number of patients a physician can charge for seeing in a day and eliminating clinical stipends once used to attract doctors to underserved parts of the province – could potentially bankrupt small town medical clinics.

Continued uncertainty is already pushing some doctors away. 

Cathryn Zapf said in late February she would be closing her clinic in Canmore because of fee reductions, and posted photographs of boxes stuffed with envelopes she says she is mailing to her patients to warn them her clinic will close in June. 

The Claro Family Practice in Drayton Valley, Alta., said two doctors being recruited to serve patients in Drayton Valley and Breton will no longer be coming, posting a screen shot of a message from one of the doctors that said: “I loved the clinic and the town. I just don’t trust this government.” 

In a letter signed by nearly 600 doctors from across Alberta, Calgary psychiatrist Will White warned the impending changes will have ripple effects across Alberta’s health care system. 

Negotiations between the provincial government and the Alberta Medical Association ended at the end of February when the province threw out the existing funding contract with Alberta doctors and imposed a new funding framework. 

In a message to members on Saturday, Alberta Medical Association president Christine Molnar said discussions have picked up again and a working group has been set up to hash out a better deal between the provincial government and Alberta’s physicians. 

She said while the “relationship between government and physicians has become strained,” the Alberta Medical Association is working to "find common ground with the government," as the working group suggests alternatives to the province’s imposed funding framework. 

Though the provincial government committed to maintaining health spending in Budget 2020, a worldwide collapse in oil prices has put "all options” back on the table as the Government of Alberta tries to find a path back to balance. 

Budget 2020 was based on an estimated WTI oil price of $58 U.S. per barrel. Earlier this week, global prices dropped to below $35 per barrel.  

“All options will be on the table to do everything we can within our capacity to help to protect jobs and Albertans," Kenney said, addressing media on Monday. 

Kenney said the government will put together a midterm budget update as plans for how Alberta will address the economic impacts of this oil price collapse. 

But as the provincial government looks to squeeze more value out of every taxpayer dollar, Annie Boychuk says: "Reduce your budgets somewhere else.” 

“We’ll lose the care our lives depend on – that’s the cutback,” she said.

Claire Theobald, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette