Court ruling locks patients into government-run health care

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, September 16, 2020
Court ruling locks patients into government-run health care

Albertans are effectively denied any alternative to government-run health care. Unfortunately, a recent court ruling in British Columbia hasn’t helped the situation. Last week, the B.C. Supreme Court dismissed a court challenge by Dr. Brian Day, former head of the Canadian Medical Association, whose surgical clinic in Vancouver provided medical services to patients failed by the public system, in violation of B.C. law. Dr. Day argued that the province’s ostensible ban on this type of privately-funded health care violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While the court ruling acknowledged the plight of thousands of patients on waiting lists, it simultaneously denied them the right to do anything about it. The result—British Columbians waiting for medically necessary care shall, for the time being, remain locked within government-run health care. Worse, the ruling may threaten the future of the few alternatives that currently exist within Canada’s borders.

Despite media reports, the case did not challenge the fundamental nature of universal access to health care in Canada. Rather, it simply sought to provide patients with an alternative—a safety valve—to relieve pressure on the government system. It was an opportunity to incorporate policies used by higher-performing universal health-care systems around the world; an opportunity now denied.

Though many Canadians remain proud of our health-care system, it’s important to be honest and acknowledge its many failures. Canadian health care is more costly, has fewer medical resources and reports mediocre outcomes compared to other wealthy countries with universal health care. We also have some of the longest wait times for care in the developed world.

And we’re the only country that effectively forbids a privately-funded alternative to the government-run system. In every other developed country—including Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom—patients have a choice between the universal government system or a private alternative for their medical care. In Australia, the federal government actually encourages citizens to obtain private health insurance, recognizing that this reduces the burden on taxpayers and encourages better performance from the public system. These alternatives exist everywhere else for good reason.

Consider for a moment the more than one million patients in Canada who waited almost 20 weeks (on average) for medically necessary care last year, and their subsequent pain, suffering, mental anguish, lost productivity at work and lost leisure time. Things are even worse here in Alberta where patients faced an estimated 28-week wait (on average) for medically necessary care (after referral from a family doctor) last year.

Waiting for health care is not a benign process. Delayed access may result in poorer outcomes from care or more complex treatments because of deteriorating medical conditions. Waiting too long can even condemn some patients to death.

And unlike citizens of every other developed country, we’re stuck with two options—wait our turn for health care here (and suffer the consequences) or cross the border for treatment elsewhere. Indeed, it’s estimated that between 52,000 and 217,000 Canadians leave Canada each year seeking health care.

Unfortunately, the B.C. Supreme Court ruling, which will likely be appealed, prevents those same Canadians from accessing certain health-care services (including major surgeries) here at home, on their own terms with their own resources when the public system is unwilling or unable to meet their needs.