Brian Day: The basic health question: Who owns our bodies?

Lawrie McFarlane’s July 24 commentary on the “Cambie Surgery Centre ruling” (a descriptive that ignores two cancer patients and three children who were co-plaintiffs) contained some valid commentary. The crisis […]
Published on August 2, 2022

Lawrie McFarlane’s July 24 commentary on the “Cambie Surgery Centre ruling” (a descriptive that ignores two cancer patients and three children who were co-plaintiffs) contained some valid commentary.

The crisis we now face in our health system is there for all to see and observe. Notably, McFarlane offers no solutions.

For those whose memory is short, he was a B.C. deputy minister of health in the early to mid-1990s. The government of his era theorized too many doctors and nurses were treating too many patients and that was responsible for rising health costs.

Their solutions were simple. Close beds, cut back medical schools (10-30 per cent nationally), and close many nursing schools.

In the 1990s, not a single hospital was built in B.C., and 1,600 full-time nursing positions were eliminated. We now have a shortage of hospital beds, doctors and nurses.

The Index Mundi data show Canada now ranks 69th in the world in doctors per population. In the 1970s we varied between fourth and eighth. OECD tables show we rank 31st in hospital beds on a population basis.

McFarlane repeats his prior claims that the reason for our legal challenge to the status quo is based on a wish for doctors to “boost their income,” repeating former attacks where he described “excessive compensation demands by various health professions,” and statements that “our health service has fallen victim to the desire of a group of specialists to stuff their mouths with gold.”

The B.C. Court of Appeal refuted those claims, and our five patient plaintiffs had nothing to gain by increasing doctors’ incomes.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Canada now spends 12.7 per cent of its GDP on health care. That’s more than any other country that offers universal care.

For our population of 35 million, we have 14 ministries of health that include 11 public health bureaucrats for every one that Germany has. And their public health system outperforms us in every way.

Every country in the world allows a non-government option, while Canada operates a state monopoly in hospital and physician care. I am not aware of any monopoly that serves its users well.

Statistics Canada reports low-income Canadians suffer from the worst access and outcomes and, among 10 developed countries with universal care, Canada ranks last in equity.

The Appeal Court confirmed wait lists were dangerously long and many B.C. patients are dying because of poor access. They appeared to condone the current system because of a theoretical negative impact that a non-state safety valve might have on disadvantaged citizens. That fear ignores government’s ability to fund private insurance or care for lower-income patients, just as they currently do for prescription drugs, dentistry, ambulances, etc.

Inequality has always existed in our system for groups like WorkSafe B.C. and other exempted groups including non-residents, prisoners and federal employees (including judges).

The 89,000 patients treated in private B.C. clinics each year leave the public system and increase capacity in the hospitals. They add resources to the public system and our government contracts out care to the clinics.

The surgeons who work there have rationed access to operating time in our public hospitals. The nurses that work in private clinics include many who would otherwise leave Canada because of the toxic workplace that the government has created in our public hospitals.

The following quotes from the B.C. Court of Appeal judgment confirm that this was not a clear victory for the government:

  • “We are not examining what objectively would be the best, most efficient, or socially just means of delivering health care to British Columbians. That is beyond our mandate and our expertise and jurisdiction.”
  • “Wait times in considerable measure flow from government rationing of health care.”
  • “Irremediable harm and increased risk of death in order to preserve a public health-care system that is intentionally under designed in order to achieve fiscal sustainability.”
  • “When the province assumes a monopoly power over the provision of medical services it is under a constitutional duty to ensure that the service is provided in a timely fashion.”
  • “We have found that the judge understated the scale and impact of the Charter infringements on thousands of patients.”
  • “The court recognizes that the provincial law is upheld at the cost of real hardship and suffering to many for whom the public system is failing to provide timely and necessary care.”
  • “The provisions’ effect of eliminating the availability of timely private care comes at too high a cost to the life and security of those individuals who cannot access timely care in the public system, but who would be able to access private care.”

Both politicians and the courts are deferring responsibility to each other. The B.C. government ignores the fact they have made the provision of timely access to medical care a legal requirement they are required to honour.

It is surely unacceptable that, having failed to meet that obligation, they then seek to enforce another law that prevents individuals stepping in and caring for themselves and their loved ones.

It begs the question: Do we or the government own our bodies?


Brian Day is an orthopedic surgeon, health researcher and medical director at Cambie Surgery Centre in Vancouver. Originally appeared in Victoria Times-Colonist.


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