Canadian Medicare on trial

Could this be the beginning of the end for the Canadian single-payer system?

By Danielle Martin
DEMOCRACY, October 3, 2016

There’s an old joke that Canadians like to tell: What’s a Canadian? A gunless American with health care.

It’s only funny because we half-believe it’s true; despite the many things we have in common with our friends south of the 49th parallel, Canada’s single-tier, publicly funded health care system has long been a point of differentiation—and pride—for most Canadians. A 2012 poll found that our health care system—known in Canada as “Medicare”—was almost universally loved, with 94% of those surveyed calling it an important source of collective pride. The notion that access to health care should be based only on need is a deeply ingrained Canadian value.

But we can’t take our Medicare system for granted.

The challenges to Canadian Medicare have always been ideological and political. But, as of this month, they are also legal.

In the western province of British Columbia, a trial underway in that province’s Supreme Court is challenging the very foundations of Medicare: providing care based solely on need, and not on ability to pay.

Cambie Surgeries Corporation and the Specialist Referral Clinic, represented by Dr. Brian Day, an orthopedic surgeon in Vancouver, are suing the government of B.C., trying to knock down the laws that protect our single-payer system. If successful, some Canadians will be able to pay out-of-pocket or through private insurance for hospital and physician services—and doctors will be able to charge them whatever the market will bear.

The essence of the claim is that, because wait times for some elective surgeries in that province are longer than we would like them to be, doctors should have a constitutionally protected right to provide them more quickly and at a higher price. This would be done by charging some patients privately, either out-of-pocket or through private insurance. They allege that existing limits on charging patients privately infringe on patients’ rights to life, liberty, and security of the person under Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is also worth noting recent efforts at tackling the main driver of this constitutional challenge: wait times for non-urgent surgery. These have come from within the public system, and include wait time targets, centralized intake for people with a common problem, and inter-professional health-care teams so that surgeons’ time does not create a bottleneck. Such initiatives show tremendous promise for reducing waits deemed unreasonable, but governments need to implement them, and health-care organizations and doctors need to help accelerate this kind of reform.

It may be that the Cambie plaintiffs will be unsuccessful in their quest to dismantle the essence of Medicare, but clearly the stakes for ordinary Canadians are very high. Like all developed countries, Canada struggles to control growth in health-care costs, meet the needs of an aging population, and provide timely care of the highest standard. Whether we continue to work to do so for all Canadians, or only some, will, in part, be determined by the outcome of the Cambie case.

Danielle Martin is a family physician in Toronto and Vice President, Medical Affairs and Health System Solutions at Women’s College Hospital.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

The single payer model in Canada is closest to the ideal model of public financing/private health care delivery supported by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). That model is now under legal challenge in Canada. If the Cambie lawsuit succeeds, the very concept of providing health care based on need rather than ability to pay will have suffered such a blow in the international community that we may never achieve that goal in the United States.

The trial will last an estimated six months and then will surely be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, more than ever, Canadians need our moral support. And, oh yes, we need theirs.