A chartered accountant named Bill Murray has launched a constitutional challenge to Alberta’s health-care laws, which are almost identical to the Quebec law struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada last year in the landmark case of Chaoulli v. Quebec.
Murray, like all Canadians, is prevented by law from spending his own money on comprehensive health insurance. Forced to rely on the government’s monopoly system, he suffered from severe pain in his left hip for over a year before being able to see a specialist. The specialist recommended Birmingham hip resurfacing surgery as the best medical option. But the Alberta government refused to provide it, claiming that Bill Murray, at age 57, was too old to enjoy the benefits of this procedure.
Without the private medical insurance the law had denied him, Bill Murray paid out of pocket for this medically necessary treatment. But after successful surgery on his left hip, Murray encountered pain in his right hip. Again, the medical specialist recommended Birmingham hip resurfacing.
But this time, Alberta denied him the surgery outright – the province wouldn’t even let Murray pay for it himself. (He eventually paid for the treatment in Montreal.) Murray’s experience with the government’s health care monopoly is not unique.
Canada’s health system forces people to wait for months, even years, for necessary medical treatment. Many suffer irreparable harm to their health in the process. Physical pain is compounded by psychological suffering: the inability to work and to enjoy life.
In its famous Chaoulli decision last year, six of seven Justices on the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that, under the circumstances, a Quebec law which prevents Canadians from seeking care outside of the government’s health monopoly violated the plaintiff’s Charter right to “life, liberty and security of the person.” (The court was divided as to whether or not this violation is permissible as being “in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”) Looking at the experience of dozens of countries around the world which allow private health care while also maintaining a public system, the majority of the Court ruled that a prohibition on private health care is not necessary to protect the quality of the public system. In fact, the World Health Organization has ranked Canada’s public health system 30th in the world, behind 29 countries which allow private health care to co-exist alongside their public systems.
Despite the Court’s pronouncement – and polls showing that a majority of Canadians support the availability of private health care as long as the public system is maintained – provincial governments have been slow to act.
Provinces have continued to deny Canadians the choice of spending their own after-tax money to preserve their own health. Canadians can spend their money on gambling, alcohol, tobacco and pornography, but not on health insurance to provide better and faster access to quality medical care.
Canadians can buy medical insurance for their pets, but not for their children.
Alberta can respond to this court action by recognizing the concerns of Bill Murray and thousands like him. Alberta can amend its health care laws to allow for a private parallel system, in line with European countries which have better public health care systems than Canada does. Alberta can provide its citizens with choice in health care, instead of imposing an inefficient, dysfunctional and unaccountable monopoly on them. And in the process, Alberta can shorten waiting lists for everyone.
Or, Alberta can defend against this court action, trotting out the tired old slogans of “equality” and preventing “two-tier” health care. But “two-tier” is already here: The wealthy can opt out of Canada’s “wait care” system and pay directly for their treatment in the U.S., the U.K., India or elsewhere.
Politicians, professional athletes and the well-connected can skip the queue to receive care immediately.
Further, Canadians know that throwing ever more tax dollars at an unaccountable monopoly will not help. Alberta, for example, has increased its health spending from $3.8-billion in 1995 to $10.5-billion today, but the problems remain.
The edifice of the government’s monopoly over health care is crumbling.
Alberta can deny the rot, and strive in vain to prop up a structure with fatal flaws. Or Alberta can take the lead, showing other provinces that when it comes to something as precious as a person’s health, a free country should give its people the power to make their own choices.
John Carpay is Executive Director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org