CanadaPediatrician shakes up Ontario's health care scene

She only stands five-foot-three but you might liken Kulvinder Gill to David doing battle with the Goliaths in the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) and Ontario’s health care ministry.

In just 18 months, the dogged Gill, a Brampton pediatrician and allergist, has managed to galvanize thousands of angry Ontario doctors to fight the unilateral cuts made by the Kathleen Wynne government to health care, vote down the latest contract and shake up the old guard at the OMA.

Last week, Gill and the organization she co-founded – Concerned Ontario Doctors (COD) – saw 104 delegates elected to the 200-member OMA council and four to the 25-member OMA board.

Many, she says, were never previously engaged in medical politics.

For the first time, all of the incumbent board members (those whose terms were up) lost their seats.

Gill, in addition to running a busy full-time practice and acting as president of COD, is now chair of District 5 (the GTA and beyond) on the OMA council.

“The OMA, the ministry and the media can no longer claim that the COD and front-line physicians who are passionate and engaged are just a ‘few, dissident voices’,” she said in a lengthy interview this past week.

In early February, the entire OMA executive – headed by president Virginia Walley – resigned a week after they barely survived a non-confidence vote.

Gill and what she describes as the “amazing team of doctors” behind her – some retired, some new to practicing, some medical students and more family physicians than specialists – had pushed for the vote amid concerns that OMA leaders had been unable to achieve binding arbitration from the Wynne government, an ongoing sticking point in their contract negotiations.

“Anytime the OMA takes action that appears not to be transparent, we are there to hold them to account,” she says. “We were prepared if they (the exec) had not resigned…(the resignations) were going to happen, voluntary or forced by the membership.”

Ontario’s doctors are now in their fourth year without a contract. Last August, 63% of Ontario physicians – alarmed with the 7% in cuts they say have been imposed since 2014 – voted resoundingly against a tentative four-year physician services agreement.

Gill has come a long way since the fall of 2015 when she – concerned with how the escalating cuts were preventing her own patients from accessing essential care and needed surgeries – and colleague Nadia Alam (a Georgetown family physician and anethesiologist) first started on their mission to expose the impact of Hoskins’ cost-cutting agenda.

They created a website, a presence on Twitter and on Facebook and participated in several protests at Queen’s Park. (Alam is no longer with COD, having left last summer.)

At the end of 2016, COD became an official not-for-profit, with an eight-member board and official memberships with fees.

They are now speaking out not just about the impact of cuts on health care and the need for binding arbitration but government legislation that places further restrictions on their profession. “We are (now) seen as the actual voice of frontline physicians,” she says.

Gill, who is in her early 30s and single, says the only thing she’s had difficulty dealing with is the “intimidation and bullying” towards her and other COD physicians at the hands of “OMA leadership,” some media and “those who want to maintain the status quo.”

Her activism aside, she says she’d never consider running politically because she loves her “day job” too much.

“The reason so many frontline physicians are engaged is because we love practicing medicine,” she said. “It’s just that the government’s policies and cuts are actually preventing us from being able to do that.”

She insists that she’ll never ever vote Liberal again.

“I’ve seen this government’s arrogance, I’ve seen how this government’s frontline policies affect my patients,” Gill says, “and I’ve seen the arrogance from this health minister.”

‘The first order of business’

Maybe this time is different.

OMA spokesman Dr. Rachel Forman told the Sun on Friday that binding arbitration is the “first order of business” in renewed contract talks between the Kathleen Wynne government and Ontario doctors – even though the government didn’t fulfill promises to pursue arbitration a year ago.

Since Wynne announced a renewed commitment in interest arbitration last month, the OMA negotiation team has had a first meeting with the government that focused on binding arbitration, she said.

Forman reiterated the contents of an open letter from the OMA last week – namely that “job action” is in the cards if the government doesn’t follow through (yet again) on its promises.

However, “absolutely no specific deadline” has been set as to when job action would commence, she said, adding that they “continue to plan” in case they get to that point.

“We don’t take this lightly,” said Forman, an obstetrician-gynecologist practicing in Toronto.

Asked what the recent election of more than 100 Concerned Ontario Doctors to the OMA council means for future governance and negotiations, Forman said she’s “really encouraged” to see the large number of new board members who are “quite engaged” and committed to binding arbitration.

Health minister Eric Hoskins said in an e-mail he sees the election of a new OMA board as a “positive step” and he’s “very enthusiastic to begin negotiations” very soon.

Ontario’s 40,000 doctors, residents and medical students are going into their fourth year without a contract.

– Sue-Ann Levy