CALGARY -- The province has backtracked on some changes to physician funding as dozens of doctors threaten to quit.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced Friday his government is rolling back more billing changes to fees and adding millions of dollars in extra cash to stop rural doctors from reducing hospital duties.

Shandro says the changes total $81 million, including adding cash top-ups to doctors who work in rural and remote areas.

The announcement comes as doctors sound the alarm about UCP decisions they believe make the province a tough place to work. Multiple rural doctors tell CTV News they have had to cancel recent hospital duties because they can't make a living under fee changes unilaterally imposed by Shandro in March.

Rural 'health crisis'

One said Alberta is heading towards a rural “health crisis.”

The Alberta Medical Association (AMA) and several doctors have repeatedly insisted the changes imposed by the province on April 1 would force hundreds of clinics across Alberta to reduce staff or close their doors.

Shandro said one of those rule changes - to no longer allow rural doctors to bill for overhead when working in a hospital - had unintended consequences.

“I’ve heard from my colleagues, from rural physicians, as well as from rural leaders all across the province, that this policy forces physicians and hospitals to make choices that reduce access,” Shandro said Friday. “This was never our intention.”

Shandro said there will be $57 million more for rural service top-ups and rural doctors will be allowed to once again claim overhead for hospital work. Urban doctors will also be allowed to do the same, pending a review on whether that policy is necessary in large centres.

The move adds to other recent rollbacks on Shandro's March changes. A plan to change fees for longer patient visits - called complex modifiers - has been scrapped and other rollbacks on physician salary top-ups, called clinical stipends, have been deferred.

The announcement is set against a backdrop of poisoned relations between Shandro and the doctors' representative, the Alberta Medical Association, after Premier Jason Kenney's government passed Bill 21 late last year giving it the power to unilaterally end the negotiated master agreement with the AMA.

Tyler Shandro

Controversial changes

Earlier this year Shandro did just that, cancelling the master agreement while simultaneously implementing the controversial changes, some of which he is now rolling back.

The AMA also launched a lawsuit against the province, seeking over $255 million in damages for what the AMA says was a breach of physicians’ rights and freedoms.

Christine Molnar, head of the AMA, said in a statement that Shandro's announcement was a positive step during the COVID-19 pandemic but said, “We need long-term solutions to real challenges, not one-time ad hoc decisions. We need a partnership between physicians and government.”

A group speaking for Alberta's rural doctors said in a statement that the fundamental issue of trust remains broken.

“We suspect these politically expedient announcements and partial rollbacks will not be enough for most physicians faced with the need to reduce hospital services in July, since we know they can be reversed again at any time,” said the Rural Sustainability Group.

“Albertans know we cannot trust this government to uphold its word or its contracts.”

Before Friday’s announcement, that group says it surveyed 300 rural physicians and found that more than half would decrease their hospital-based services by July.

It’s unclear what Shandro’s decision will now mean for those doctors, but Dr. Samantha Myhr, part of the Sustainability Group and one of seven doctors giving up hospital privileges in Pincher Creek, said it doesn't change her mind.

“I'm still going through with it,” said Myhr, who said she can't be sure the benefits granted today won't be gone tomorrow.

“What happens a few months down the line?” she said.

-With files from the Canadian Press