Private Firms Thrive As NDP ‘Reinvents’ Medicare

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), August 1993

Many of today’s seniors fought for Canada’s internationally-admired public health system. But more and more people are becoming worried that the combination of health care reform, funding cutbacks and free trade is fuelling the growth of a second tier of private medical services serving the well off. 

The provincial government sees things differently, arguing Ontarians no longer expect government to pay for everything and rather than eroding medicare, the NDP is reinventing it. 

Whichever way one looks at it, private insurance companies, homecare providers, labs and other services designed to make money are becoming more and more involved in the health care business. 

Operating in the territory outside the guidelines of the 1984 Canada Health Act – which sets out the principles of medicare for the federal government to enforce – the private sector has room to expand, at the same time as OHIP coverage is scaled back from more and more services. 

Janet Maher, whose Ontario Health Coaltion (OHC) represents doctors, nurses and other health care workers, worries for the future of medicare. 

“A number of things like accomodation services – laundry, food services – are in the grey area of the Canada Health Act,” says Maher. “So with all these fees that are being introduced, by the strict letter of the law, there is no way to stop them. But as far as we are concerned the spirit of the Act isn’t being observed.”

In its current reforms, the government of Ontario is emphasizing paramedical professions like midwives who fall outside the CHA and aren’t covered by OHIP. The turn to community-based services means that people have to rely more on services and providers that aren’t covered under the CHA. 

Maher says privatizing accomodation services is a recent phenomenon, the result of hospitals finding creative ways to trim their budgets. 

“It’s a new area that hospitals are taking bids on,” she says. “The other thing around the accomodation services is that because they are not categorized, strictly speaking, as health care services, none of this is exempted in the Free Trade Agreement from U.S. competition.”

A recent report by two British Columbia researchers tries to put together this complex puzzle. Jackie Henwood and Colleen Fuller of the 7,500-member Health Sciences Association of British Columbia recently charged that a combination of free trade and budget-slashing governments is eroding the universality of medicare and ushering in a two-tier system. 

Fuller and Henwood identify the Free Trade Agreement as the culprit. While the health care industry created more jobs than any other sector of the Canadian economy between 1984 and 1991, they point out the job growth has been concentrated in the private sector since free trade was implemented in 1989. And they expect worse under the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

“NAFTA will accelerate trends towards a privatized, non-union and corporate-dominated system of health care in Canada.”

One provision of the Free Trade Agreement has also made it possible for U.S. companies to compete against Canadian firms in health care. Chapter 14, “health-care facilities management services”, allows wide-open competition. 

Under NAFTA, provisions will bind all levels of government to consider for-profit health care companies on both sides of the border on equal footing with public providers when bidding for services, and entitles them to compensation if they can prove to an arbitration board they’ve been wronged. 

“That represents a substantial encroachment on the democratic right of local, provincial and federal governments to make decisions,” says Cathleen Connors, who chairs the national wing of OHC, the Canadian Health Coalition. 

It’s this plus health care cutbacks – federal and provincial – that’s resulting in service and job cuts and bed closures in the public sector and an increase in privatization, say Henwood and Fuller. These opportunities have not gone unnoticed by private companies south of the border. 

One such company is American Medical Security Inc. (AMS) of Green Bay Wisconsin. After hiring Canadian pollsters Angus Reid to do a survey, AMS saw a profitable market in offering American hospital insurance to frustrated Canadians awaiting surgery. Sixteen per cent of those polled said they wanted this service; that was enough for AMS. 

“One thing that comes across loud and clear is that Canadians for the most part are happy,” says spokesperson Carrie Galbraith. “They know they are taken care of during an emergency. But they are willing to pay a little extra if they need care.”

So far, AMS offers its plan to Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba, with Toronto its best market. Galbraith says plans are in the works to expand to all of Canada except the territories. 

Unfortunately, like most private health plans, AMS cuts its losses by avoiding what Galbraith calls “adverse selection” – anybody with a known serious health problem need not apply. 

Here in Ontario, private for-profit home care services take in close to half of all OHIP billings. Many clients pay out of their own pockets for additional services. 

The Ontario health ministry doesn’t keep statistics on the extent of the private home health care sector, says spokesperson Layne Verbeek. But the Ontario Home Health Care Providers’ Association, a trade group, estimates private homecare companies now employ 20,000 and serve more than 100,000. 

“It’s a market situation,” says Henwood. “If the services aren’t available to people within the public sector, they will go outside of it. We’ve seen this in other countries like England, where they had a public system and now have a parallel private system. If you erode a system enough that people get angry, they are going to start to look for alternatives, and the people with the greatest liberty are those with money.”

But in a recent interview, health minister Ruth Grier was adament this scenario wouldn’t be allowed to take place in Ontario. She strongly disagreed that medicare is being weakened due to recent changes, and said the government has actually “reaffirmed its commitment to medicare.”  

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