Alberta health care can be better, but not through lawsuits and a two-tier system

The following opinion article was published in the Medicine Hat News on April 11, 2014 (available on their website here).

On April 2, Justice P. R. Jeffrey of Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench rejected the claim put forward by lawyer John Carpay on behalf of Darcy Allen that prohibition on private health insurance in Alberta infringes on Mr. Allen’s Charter Rights.

Mr. Carpay based his court argument on the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Chaouilli case that a ban on private health insurance under Quebec law infringed Mr. Chaoulli’s Charter right to security of the person.

This claim was not a rejection of access to health care but rather recognition that allowing private insurance to determine Albertans’ access to health care is not a solution to the problems in our public health care system. The Alberta Court found Chaoulli didn’t apply. That’s no surprise. The Supreme Court clearly stated Chaoulli applied only to the specifics of the Quebec case. This Alberta case was simply political grandstanding. We can’t build the health system we want through the courts. A small, angry minority of Albertans wants a two-tier health system where a few people get whatever they want while everyone else waits. The great majority of us want good health care based on need, not ability to pay. The minority just can’t seem to live with losing this argument. Or do Mr. Carpay et al believe in democracy and the rule of law only when they win?

Mr. Allen is a dentist who was forced to sell his business as a result of his debilitating back condition. He, along with other Albertans who are living with pain, loss of productivity, and income, are all victims of Alberta’s poorly-managed health-care system. Personal pain cannot be quantified or dismissed, and it is shameful that people are being put into a situation where they feel compelled to look at other options that should and must be available within our public system.

We can do better, but not through lawsuits and not through two-tier health care. Mr. Carpay’s constant characterization of our health system as a “government monopoly” is American-style rhetori. It’s just automatic opposition to any public enterprise. Privateers like Mr. Carpay seem to believe that markets can do everything. Markets are good at lots of things, but they are hopeless at health care. It’s called market failure because health care just isn’t like consumer goods — sick people don’t “consume” health care like other things. We go to emergency because we have to, not because we want to. When we keel over with a heart attack, we don’t think, “Great! Now we can go shopping for a hospital!”

The idea of private health care comes back time and time again because it is desirable for a small group of people who have both money and influence. The vast majority of Canadians have continued to say no, over and over and over.

Advocates of private health care like to toss out general claims that Sweden is better or France is better, but that’s just empty rhetoric. The comparisons are meaningless because the health systems are so different and the countries overall are so different. We can’t just be “like Sweden.” The privatizers always want to talk about somewhere else because they don’t want to talk about our own experience in Canada, especially in Alberta, where our own experience with private health care so far has been a disaster.

To share just one example, some Albertans will remember the Health Resource Centre (HRC) — Ralph Klein’s pet project of a private hospital. It went bankrupt. In business they call that “failing.” It showed the mess we get into with decisions driven by ideology and instead of by common sense. The former Calgary Health Region under Jim Dinning and Jack Davis oversaw maybe the most ridiculous piece of waste and extravagance ever in our health system, getting the province to fund the McCaig Tower for orthopedic surgery while at the same time they were promising to double HRC’s contract for the same surgeries, a few blocks down the street.

Our health system may not be perfect but it is a solid foundation from which to continue building, expanding, and improving. Many of us are getting sick of watching a handful of corporate power-brokers and political bagmen experiment with new ways to distort the health system to benefit their friends.

Allowing private insurance to stand between you and your health care is not only not cost effective, but most importantly, it only serves to create a system of inequality of access to health care.

Sandra Azocar of Edmonton is executive director of Alberta’s Friends of Medicare.