June 12, 2012 / 8:37 PM / 5 years ago

Ontario doctors take province to court over fees

TORONTO (Reuters) - Ontario doctors, frustrated with the provincial government's plan to curb their fees as it cuts its deficit, said on Tuesday they would challenge the changes in court, arguing that the ruling Liberals have not negotiated in good faith.

The Ontario Medical Association, which represents the doctors of Canada's most populous province, is applying to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for a review of the government's negotiating tactics and a reversal of fee cuts.

"Here in Canada, everyone is afforded protections under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This includes doctors," said Doug Weir, president of the Ontario Medical Association.

"It's deeply disappointing that the government has devalued the role of physicians to the point where we are forced to take such a drastic step."

The dispute is the latest hurdle for debt-strapped provincial governments like Ontario, for whom health care is their biggest expense by far. The province earlier this year cut medical fees by a total of C$340 million ($330 million) as part of an effort to balance its budget by 2017-18.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said last month that the fee cuts on dozens of procedures were only 80 percent of what the province needs to meet its fiscal target.

The OMA said the Ontario government rejected several of its offers, including one equivalent to a 2.5 percent fee cut to physicians.

It cited a British Columbia case where the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a wage freeze, ruling that the right to freedom of association included the right to bargain collectively.

Matthews on Tuesday said the government would rather sit down to negotiate "in a boardroom, not a courtroom" and will defend its decisions in any court case.

"Unfortunately, the OMA has walked away from the table, they refused to return to the table and now they're taking this to court for not being at the table," she told reporters. "I can tell you I'm very, very disappointed, I think Ontario patients are disappointed as well."

In their spring budget, the minority Liberals, who are also in negotiation with teachers and other public unionized workers, pledged to rewrite legislation if needed to control public sector compensation costs, something that account for over half of Ontario's program spending.

Credit rating agencies have repeatedly warned Ontario that tackling its C$15 billion deficit will require resolve in implementing tough austerity measures.

Canada's health care system is mostly publicly funded, and there are strict rules on the role for private medicine. ($1 = $1.03 Canadian)

Reporting By Claire Sibonney; Editing by Janet Guttsman

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