The leader of the BC Green Party is calling on the provincial government to immediately release the findings of a watchdog’s probe into a Telus Health program.
Sonia Furstenau is urging Health Minister Adrian Dix to release the Medical Services Commission’s “report” into whether the private, fee-based program has contributed to a “two-tier” health-care system that allows some patients to cut in line by opening their wallets.
“While almost a million British Columbians go without a family doctor, private corporations are swooping in to offer healthcare services for a cost,” she said in a Tuesday news release.
“British Columbians need to know that these private healthcare providers are not allowing queue-jumping or other practices that are illegal under our universal healthcare system.”
According to Furstenau, Dix has had the watchdog’s report for nearly six weeks.
In an interview, Dix said the Medical Services Commission is in the midst of a review, not report, and will rule “in the coming months.”
“This is a review and they have the power to take action pursuant to that review,” he told Global News. “Obviously the public will be informed of action should it be taken.”
He was concerned about possible issues with the program long before the Greens raised it, he added.
“This is what we call following the law in B.C. My job is to ensure the Medical Protection Act is strong enough.”
Earlier this year, Dix confirmed his department asked the Medical Services Commission to look into whether the Telus Health LifePlus program has created disparity in patient access to critical services. The review also examines concerns that family doctors are closing practices and telling patients they can continue on if they subscribe to the Telus service.
The program is a small part of the company’s health care offering.
In a written statement to Global News in June, Telus Health said it responded to the commission’s request in March. Its care centres aim to “alleviate the burden” on B.C.’s health-care system, it said, and in addition to completing a yearly preventative health assessment, clients have access to health professionals, such as kinesiologists, physiotherapists, psychologists and dieticians.
All participating physicians are independent contractors, the corporation explained, and choose how much time to dedicate to the public-funded primary care portion of their practice.
“TELUS Health does not charge for any primary care services,” wrote Sonya Lockyer, vice-president of TELUS Health Care Centres and Pharmacy. “The LifePlus program fees are strictly for the preventative care modalities noted above, which are provided by a multidisciplinary team that is not publicly-funded.”
Telus Health, she added, is “fundamentally opposed” to fast-tracking publicly-funded health services for a fee.
The LifePlus program costs $4,600 in the first year and more than $3,000 annually after that.
“The gaps in our healthcare system need to be filled by a government with a plan, not by corporations eyeing a business opportunity,” Furstenau said in the release.
“Indeed, the family doctor crisis has been a long time in the making; both the B.C. Liberals and B.C. NDP bear responsibility for it. But the onus for fixing it is on the party in government, and thus far, the B.C. NDP has failed to do anything meaningful about it.”
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Dix said extra billing for medically-necessary services is “in general” not allowed in the province and the commission can take action on complaints that physicians have asked for such fees. If the law isn’t strong enough, he added, he will make it stronger, but he doesn’t see evidence of that to date.
“Our access to health care should not be based on your ability to pay. We are supposed to have universal health care,” he said.
In previous comments, the minister said that since 2017, alternative payments to doctors whose services are not delivered through fee-for-service models have increased from $500 million to about $750 million. It’s an increase of about 15 per cent every year for the past three years, he said.
Dix said he and Premier John Horgan have had “significant sessions” with Doctors of BC in the past few weeks to “work through the issues” when it comes to working conditions and the doctor shortage.
— with files from Kamil Karamali and Richard Zussman