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The Canada Health Act must permit more room for experimentation and innovation at a provincial level

Bryan SchwartzThe provinces say they need more federal money for health. The federal government says it wants to be assured of improved outcomes first.

In my view, adding money, even with various provinces and metrics, will not be sufficient. We will still have huge problems with inadequate staff, waiting lists, procedures that are simply not offered, and lack of innovation, among other problems.

The healthcare system cannot be fixed within the rigidities imposed by federal policy that does not allow the provinces enough room to provide the best mix of public and private payment. Almost all other developed countries allow for a reasonable mix. We in Canada have to find our own hybrid. Otherwise, we will continue the paradox: Compared to many other countries, on a per capita basis, we pay more and get less.

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Let me propose a way forward for Canada. The idea is to seek an approach that can be widely agreed upon by people with different political views, beliefs, and practical experiences. It would invite decision-making based on evidence, not ideology.

First, the Canada Health Act must permit more room for experimentation and innovation by provincial governments. Federalism is a fundamental value of Canada. Provinces have primary authority over healthcare delivery. In different provinces, new ideas can be formulated and tested. They may involve some options where patients pay for care directly or through private insurance. We can see what works and what does not.

Second, the flexibility permitted by Health Canada could be guided by the “mutual reinforcement” principle. More private-pay options will be allowed to the extent that a provincial government has reasonably determined that it will not harm the quality, timeliness, and accessibility of the publicly insured system. The standard is “a private-pay option can be permitted or facilitated by a provincial government if it does not damage, and preferably promotes, the publicly insured system.”

So, the current publicly insured system remains the starting point. The aim is to make it as good as it can be in terms of accessibility, quality, timeliness, efficiency, and outcomes, given all the other constraints on public spending. But the provinces would be permitted to explore whether some private-pay options would, in fact (not merely under ideological presumptions), improve the publicly insured system.

For example, in some circumstances, it might make sense to permit a physician to practice in both the mainstream (publicly funded) and their own private-pay clinic. If the two roles are properly co-ordinated, the physician might end up doing more procedures overall and reduce the demand on the mainstream system. The private-pay clinic might be a space where innovation takes place in response to provider creativity and patient preference and may eventually be incorporated into the mainstream system.

Some freedom to practice outside the mainstream system might encourage the physician to remain in Canada or attract other physicians to locate here. Patients who might otherwise seek care outside of the country might instead take advantage of private practices here, with the taxes from private practices helping to support the mainstream system.

You can propose scenarios, of course, in which the private-pay option damages the mainstream system. For example, in some circumstances, it could result in fewer overall procedures being done in the mainstream system. In other scenarios, you might show that the private-pay option substantially reduces voter or government enthusiasm for maintaining and improving the mainstream system.

The key point is that increased freedom and flexibility for provincial regulators, providers, and especially patients would not be ruled out or ruled in by a reformed federal policy. Instead, there would be a standard: Does an innovation help in some ways and either improve or at least not hurt the mainstream system? There would be requirements for applying that standard. Particular innovations would be introduced and monitored on a transparent and evidence-based method, not based on rigid ideology.

An analogy is relevant. It is widely accepted that economic development and environmental improvement can reinforce each other. There is no guarantee, however, that this is always the case. Instead, provinces and the federal government both do environmental assessments. Evidence is reviewed to ensure that a particular development is not, in fact, likely to harm the environment.

A more flexible federal healthcare framework could – at least initially – include additional safeguards. Private-pay options might initially be limited to certain kinds of procedures or operations such as diagnostics, hip replacements, and other such elective surgeries.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the rigidity of the current healthcare system is having a significant effect on some citizens’ quality of life and, in some cases, even life itself. We can now proceed in a way that is evidence-based and reconciles different value systems.

The current stifling of debate and policy innovation is causing deadly consequences for Canadians. We can do much, much better for everyone in need.

Bryan Schwartz is a professor of law at the University of Manitoba.

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