Injunction blocks planned surgical slowdown

Anesthesiologists back in court in two weeks to defend job action plans

B.C.’s health authorities have won a temporary court injunction barring anesthesiologists from a planned job action to disrupt thousands of elective surgeries this week.

The B.C. Anesthesiologists Society (BCAS), which is in a labour dispute with the province, had vowed to reduce service at all Lower Mainland hospitals outside of Vancouver, as well as others on Vancouver Island and in the Interior, starting April 2.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruling Friday freezes that strategy until a full hearing can be heard on the injunction request April 18.

Society president Dr. Jeff Rains said members intend to fully abide by the judge’s instructions.

He would not say whether anesthesiologists will go ahead with the job action if the injunction request is rejected in court later this month.

“We’ll have to just see what comes out in the hearing,” Rains said.

“From the very beginning our path forward has not been as an end goal to withdraw services from patients,” he said. “Our goal is to improve services to patients.

“With or without an injunction, with or without service reductions, we still need a process to deal with the issues critical to anesthesia care in this province.”

Interior Health president and CEO Dr. Robert Halpenny, speaking on behalf of all health authorities, said the injunction was necessary because urgent and emergency surgeries could have been compromised.

He said anesthesiologists created confusion by suggesting they could do all needed procedures, but after regular hours, threatening to delay urgent and emergency procedures that normally get priority at those times.

The health authorities have also warned anesthesiologists that they can be found in breach of their contracts if they withdraw service and they could be sued for any extra costs incurred by the health care system.

Health authorities sent out 3,237 letters to patients last week warning their surgeries may be rescheduled, with 1,105 patients in Fraser Health receiving the advisory.

Patients most likely to be affected by any future job action are ones awaiting non-urgent procedures such as hip or knee replacements and cataract surgeries.

All emergency and urgent surgery, including urgent joint replacements and cardiac or cancer-related surgeries, will not be affected.

The BCAS said its planned slowdown would be comparable to staffing levels health authorities deal with at Christmas holidays.

Anesthesiologists are trying to pressure the province to allow their society to bargain separately, rather than under the umbrella of the B.C. Medical Association, which they say does not represent their interests.

The BCAS, which represents some but not all anesthesiologists, gave notice three months ago of its threat to withdraw service if the dispute was not settled.

The society had said most of the 250 anesthesiologists in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island were poised to cut their hours 30 per cent, affecting all Fraser Health hospitals.

Health Minister Mike de Jong previously accused the group of holding patients hostage in a bid to win higher wages.

The province says anesthesiologists make about $340,000 a year with almost none of the overhead expenses of other doctors, and that their pay levels have climbed 36 per cent over the past decade, compared to 22 per cent for general practitioners.

De Jong called the threat of a service withdrawal “unprofessional” and referred the matter to the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons for possible disciplinary action.

Rains said any attempt by the province to intimidate or punish anesthesiologists would only backfire by worsening surgery waits and making new anesthesiologists less likely to move to B.C.

“Removing people’s licences? How is that going to help patient care across the province? It’s only going to make things worse.”