Canada's prohibition against buying private medical insurance is unconscionable in a democracy. Health care is a legal product. Why then is it illegal for Canadians to spend their own after-tax dollars to buy insurance for faster or better care than the government-run health monopoly is able to provide?
On Tuesday, two Albertans who were forced to pay out of their own pockets for back surgeries in the United States launched lawsuits against the Alberta government.
Darcy Allen and Richard Cross hope to convince the courts that it is unconstitutional for the provincial government to make it illegal to buy private health insurance for procedures that are also available in Alberta.
With the help of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), the pair hope to extend the Supreme Court's Chaoulli decision to Alberta.
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that Canadian governments - federal and provincial - had created a "virtual monopoly" over health care. That monopoly, the court further ruled, had proven itself incapable of providing timely care to many patients. Even so, governments had made it illegal for Canadians to pay for treatment on their own when the government monopoly could not or would not provide it. That was putting Canadians' lives at risk with no possibility of escape, which the court determined 6-1 was a violation of our Charter rights.
Unfortunately, because the Chaoulli challenge was brought only against Quebec's health care law, the court's decision applied only in Quebec. For it to apply across the country, it may be necessary to bring similar challenges in every province. The Calgary-based JCCF has decided to start with Alberta.
Both Allen and Cross (the two patients who will serve as test cases) suffered from severe back pain that kept them from working. Both were confined to bed or the floor while awake and both were informed it would take a year or more to see a specialist for tests to determine whether they were candidates for surgery and another year for surgery if they were deemed worthy. Unwilling to suffer that long and to be absent from their lives for years, both men opted for surgery in the United States and both were denied reimbursement for their costs by Alberta's Out-of-Country Health Services Committee.
You can see what a gerbil wheel we Canadians are on: We are required to get care from our bureaucratic provincial health monopolies, which often are incapable of providing us with the new hips or heart valves or cancer treatments we need. But rather than face the fact that universal health care is not the warm, fuzzy ideal we are told it is, our politicians would rather see us die on waiting lists - or at the very least suffer reduced quality of life for years and years until our top-heavy health administrations eventually grind out some sort of relief long after the medically desirable due date.
The JCCF's fight is not about imposing two-tiered, American-style health care on Canada. Rather, it is about giving Canadians the right to seek more timely, private care just as every resident of Europe is permitted to do. As Allen's and Cross's cases proceed through the courts, expect to hear all the usual interest groups - public-sector unions, opposition parties and leftist activists - claim that health care for the poor and vulnerable is at stake. Don't believe it.
Every European country permits the kind of supplemental, private care the JCCF is fighting for while also guaranteeing no citizen will go without life-saving care whether they can afford it or not.
This challenge is about freedom and options for patients, not about privilege and exclusion.