TORONTO - Cuts to doctors' fees that took effect Thursday triggered dire warnings from Ontario physicians and the opposition parties about longer wait times for patients.

The Ontario government has cut funding for physician services by a total of 6.9 per cent since February, "which includes across-the-board cuts and a number of targeted cuts that affect specific specialties," said OMA president Dr. Michael Toth.

"These short-sighted cuts to physician services will result in longer wait-times and reduce the access to care for Ontario's patients," he said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown told the legislature the Liberals took $235 million from "patient care" by cutting the fees paid to doctors, and have trimmed over $800 million from health-care spending this year.

"That means longer wait times and less access to care in Ontario," said Brown. "How does the premier explain to the single, working mother forced to sit in the emergency room all night because she can't get a doctor for her child? How can they justify that?"

The New Democrats said the government needs to recognize that doctors should be properly compensated for the care they provide.

"This government is bound and determined to paint every single physician in this province as money hungry and opportunistic, and this is wrong," said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

The government insisted there are no cuts to patient care in its latest round of fee cuts for physicians.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins said Ontario doctors — who make an average of $368,000 a year — are the highest paid in Canada, and are being asked to take a small fee cut to help free up money for other health-care needs.

"We've got difficult decisions to make in terms of investing in home and community care, mental health services, cancer care," said Hoskins.

"So we've asked our physicians to help us create a sustainable budget, to accept slightly less, a modest decrease in what we pay them for services, so that we can continue to invest in those other priorities."

The OMA said the government's fee cuts come as the number of new patients in Ontario jumps by 140,000 every year with a growing and aging population, and an estimated 800,000 Ontarians still don't have a family doctor.

The doctors' lobby group said many physicians have threatened to leave the province to work in other jurisdictions, but Hoskins wasn't worried.

"I'm not sure why they would close their practice or why they would suggest that perhaps wait times might increase or that somehow access would be affected," he said. "We're continuing to pay physicians for every service that they provide. We're just paying them slightly less."

Hoskins said the province and the OMA went through a year of negotiations including mediation and conciliation before the government opted to impose a new contract because the doctors' didn't like the ruling from conciliator Warren Winkler, Ontario's former chief justice.

"He recommended to the OMA that they accept out fair offer," said Hoskins. "The OMA decided to reject the offer and the recommendation of Judge Winkler. We're implementing his recommendations."

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