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Minister Shandro is right to expand Alberta’s sunshine list

Author: Franco Terrazzano 18/07/2020

The single biggest day-to-day expense for the Alberta government is labour costs. And with taxpayers footing the bill, we deserve to know just how much we are paying for all government employees with six-figure salaries.

While Alberta’s sunshine list discloses the salaries and benefits of bureaucrats making more than $111,000 per year and employees of government agencies such as Alberta Health Services making more than $132,000 per year, the sunshine list has one serious flaw: it doesn’t cover all workers paid by the public purse.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro proposed to expand the sunshine list to include all doctors paid through tax dollars. With about 10 per cent of the entire provincial budget going to pay doctors, this is a necessary step for government transparency. 

“Since Albertans should know the facts, the government is also exploring introducing physician compensation transparency,” Shandro announced

As Shandro also pointed out, publicly disclosing doctor compensation is already being done in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador has announced that it’s going to look into a similar sunshine list.

If there ever was a province that should be publicly disclosing doctors’ pay, it would be Alberta, where doctors’ costs are significantly higher than in other provinces. At $413,000 annually, average fee-for-service payments to doctors are about $100,000 higher in Alberta than in B.C., Ontario and Quebec.  And if we were to bring our per person doctors’ costs in line with these other large provinces, taxpayers would save more than $900 million every year.

To his credit, Shandro wants Alberta to outshine other provinces on transparency.

“[Other] provinces simply publish gross payments [to doctors] without any other additional measures for context,” said Shandro during Question Period. “Our list will … disclose the name of the practitioner, the specialty, gross payments, number of days worked, unique patient visits and total patient visits.

“This will be far and above the most transparent and comprehensive of any other sunshine list in Canada.”

There’s a good reason Shandro is considering adding in the number of visits rather than just the overall payment to doctors. That allows Albertans to see what value we are receiving for our tax dollars, not just the amount of tax dollars being paid out. The additional scrutiny will help ensure costs don’t continue to grow out of step with the services being delivered or what Albertans can afford.

Far outpacing population growth and inflation over the last decade, Alberta’s spending on doctors isn’t sustainable. That spending increased by 300 per cent since 2002, which is much larger than growth in other large provinces, according to KPMG’s report to the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s finances.

And while the amount of services provided by an Alberta family doctor fell by seven per cent, the average cost for services increased by 37 per cent from 2009 to 2016. Furthermore, payments to doctors increased by more than 20 per cent between 2014 and 2018 while total workers’ pay across the province declined by six per cent.

The rest of cabinet should follow Shandro’s leadership and extend sunshine list rules to all employees under their jurisdiction. That means employees in exempt Crown corporations such as the Alberta Investment Management Corporation, the oil and gas war room, local school boards, along with municipal politicians should all be included in a single sunshine list that is easily accessible for taxpayers, as long as their compensation is above the $111,000 threshold.

Taxpayers are footing a large government labour bill and we deserve to know about the big six-figure paycheques being doled out. Shandro’s proposal to include doctors in the sunshine list a good first step. Now the rest of his colleagues should follow suit.

This column was originally published in the Calgary Sun on July 18, 2020.