Posted on September 25, 2008

NAFTA-based suit threatens Canada's medicare


Suit seeks to open Canadian health care to privatizers

By Frances Russell
Winnipeg Free Press
September 24, 2008

Canada’s growing flirtation with private for-profit health care has led to the first legal assault on Canadian medicare under the investor-state clause of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Alone among the world’s trade treaties, NAFTA allows foreign investors to sue the Canadian government directly if any public policy or governmental action denies them investment or profit opportunities.

Now, a group of 200 private investors led by Arizona businessman Melvin J. Howard is planning to use the NAFTA national treatment mechanism to pry open Canadian medicare — often described by neoconservatives as “the last great uncracked oyster in the North American marketplace.”

Howard and his partners want to open a private surgical centre in B.C. similar to the Cambie Clinic owned by Dr. Brian Day, past-president of the Canadian Medical Association, but are facing what they call anti-American roadblocks in several municipalities.

The use of NAFTA’s Chapter 11 to put medicare out of business — more accurately, to make it a for-profit, private, and likely American, business — has long been feared by medicare’s supporters. They have never believed government assurances that NAFTA grandfathered medicare beyond the reach of foreign insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) seeking to replace it with U.S. private for-profit medicine.

It’s significant to note that NAFTA’s Chapter 11 effectively gives foreign investors greater rights than Canadian investors, because Canadians are restricted in their ability to sue their own government.

(Mike McBane, co-ordinator of the pro-medicare National Health Coalition) says privatizers and foreign investors are emboldened by what he calls a “perfect storm:” a federal government that believes in provincial autonomy, not national standards; the 2005 Supreme Court Chaoulli decision that private medical services do not abridge medicare and are a fundamental human right; and the CMA’s new support for two-tier medicine.

He cites a speech Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave in 2001 when he was president of the National Citizens Coalition in which he stated: “(W)hat we clearly need is experimentation — with market reforms and private delivery options within the public system. And it is only logical that, in a federal state where the provinces operate the public health care systems and regulate private services, that experimentation should occur at the provincial level.”

Continues McBane: “The dangerous thing is, you establish a private clinic and then it gets sold… We know why foreign investment wants it because they see public health care budgets as a cash cow.”


By Don McCanne, MD

Canadians, who much prefer their public medicare system to the U.S. private-market version of health care, have long feared that NAFTA would open up their health care system to an invasion of U.S.-style, investor-owned, market-based insurers and providers. The U.S. experience has proven that these entrepreneurs can cause health care costs to skyrocket, while greatly impairing equitable coverage and access.

The door has been opened; the “oyster has been cracked.” The U.S. entrepreneurial invaders have invoked NAFTA to force the introduction of expensive, corporate, for-profit, upper-tier health care to serve Canada’s more affluent citizens. Once in place, the public medicare program will see a gradual decline in funding because of the lack of a strong political voice (moneyed voice) representing lower-income individuals.

Chronic underfunding of Canada’s medicare will convert it into a bottom-tier, U.S.-style Medicaid program with impaired access since providers will bail out of the public sector and move into the lucrative, upper-tier private sector. (Just as with Medicaid, some dedicated physicians will remain in the public sector simply because it is the right thing to do, but they will have to work with much more limited resources.)

Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian medicare, was selected by the people as “The Greatest Canadian.” The people must now consider what Tommy Douglas would have had to say about investor-owned health care. Perhaps it’s time for the citizens of Canada to demand that their political leadership revisit NAFTA.