RED DEER -- Over 800 Alberta doctors have signed an open letter to the provincial government, asking that the healthcare changes, slated to come in to effect on April 1 be paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The proposed changes that will be initiated on April 1, 2020 are detrimental to our patients and the healthcare system," the letter said.

The changes the letter is disputing are the changes that will come with the new contract with Alberta physicians. This new contract followed the termination of the master agreement in February.

The government announced that revisions to complex modifiers will not occur on March 31, as they originally planned. The government also introduced billing codes for phone and virtual consultations to allow patients, who are sick, to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, physicians cannot bill the government a complex modifier fee for longer phone calls which they can for in-person visits for patients who require more time.

There are still a number of changes planned to take effect with the new agreement. For example, doctors facing service fee cuts in order to directly cover hospital expenditures, applying a daily patient cap, and eliminating good faith claims where physicians can submit claims for services for residents who cannot provide a health care number like the homeless.

Dr. John Julyan-Gudgeon, a family physician in Red Deer, signed the open letter. He said it is not the time to make changes to the healthcare system as we all face a pandemic.

"Right now we are looking at an unprecedented health crisis with COVID-19," he said.

"We are going to be here for all Albertans, however we work best within the system that we already know and we need these changes to not occur right now, so that we can adeptly, and with skill, navigate this system as it goes up against its greatest stressor that any of us have seen in our living memories."

The letter also states that more than 400 community clinics in Alberta have either closed or have layed-off staff. Julyan-Gudgeon said he thinks this number is probably higher.

"This is going to be a low estimate."

"These are just the ones that we’ve been able to reach out too."

Julyan-Gudgeon said he is concerned with the closures and lay-offs as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the province.

"These are concerning things because we want to be able to continue to have that capacity to see all the patients and develop more capacity as the demand increases," he said.

"It’s becoming immediately unsustainable for many of these clinics and that’s just heading on in to this week."

The doctors who signed the letter were verified through the College of Family Physicians registry. However, Julyan-Gudgeon stated that they have more than 1,700 signatures from doctors from all over Canada and the world.

"Out of those 1,700 names, many of them seem to be doctors from other regions."

"We are seeing a large national and international support."

Julyan-Gudgeon said negotiations may need to occur in the future, but right now the focus needs to be on the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We understand that changes may need to be made."

"We want to be stakeholders and at the table for those changes, but now is not the time to be introducing unknowns and instability when what we really need is stability and focus on the health crisis at hand."