In 1997, Jacques Chaouilli, MD, a family physician in Montreal, Quebec, decided he could no longer tolerate seeing his patients suffer—sometimes die—lingering on waiting lists for treatment and/or specialty care. He started a private emergency housecall service that got shut down by the government because of its prohibition of private health care. He then decided to challenge Canada’s law prohibiting patients from seeking—and doctors from providing—private health care outside of the government run single-payer monopoly health care system.
Dr. Chaouill had difficulty finding any lawyers willing to take his case, so he eventually decided to represent himself. He embarked on his own independent study of law, and eventually, got accepted into the Montreal University School of Law. After getting into numerous debates with his professors over the interpretation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom (analogous to the U.S. Bill of Rights), he left law school, and pursued his legal education independently.
Ultimately, after many years, his efforts bore fruit. A lower-level court had ruled that Dr. Chaouilli was correct in contending that the prohibition of private health care violated ones rights to “life, liberty, and security,” as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedom, but that the development of a two-tiered medical system was unacceptable to the Canadian vision of “equality.”
In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada heard Dr. Chaouilli’s appeal, and ruled that the Canadian single-payer system led to situations whereby patients suffer and die on government waiting lists, in violation of their rights guaranteed by both the Canadian and the Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the prohibition of a parallel private medical system in addition to the government mandated single-payer system.
Dr. Chaouill’s heroic eight-year effort, during which time he sacrificed priceless time with his family and with his patients, left him financially distressed, but morally vindicated.
The Court’s decision has since led to the growth of numerous private clinics, throughout the provinces, where patients can obtain private medical care for cash, in a consumer-driven market, and avoid having to travel south of the border to get off the queue.
A May 2011 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) stated: “What once was privatization trickle may soon become a wave.” Dr. Zoltan Nagy, President of the Canadian Independent Medical Clinics Association, estimated that in 2011 there were over 300 private clinics in Quebec alone, including clinics emphasizing executive health and cosmetic services. A spokesperson for the Quebec Department of Public Health Services said that the clinics are not only increasing in number, but also in size, becoming “mini-hospitals.” He noted that one-day cataract, knee, and hip surgeries are increasingly being performed in private clinics.
The colleges of physicians and surgeons for British Columbia and Alberta publish lists of independent clinics providing surgeries outside of hospitals. As of 2011, they listed 66 clinics in British Columbia and 60 in Alberta, providing multiple types of surgeries and dozens of services. Their lists don’t include the many private imaging and executive health centers in those provinces.
The former President of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Brian Day, owns the private Cambie Surgery Centre in Vancouver, BC. In an interview in the CMAJ article, he says the proliferation of private clinics is a function of the inability of the public system to meet demand.
In an interview in 2009 by the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Day said, in justifying the proliferation of private clinics, "What we have in Canada is access to a government, state-mandated wait list… You cannot force a citizen in a free and democratic society to simply wait for healthcare, and outlaw their ability to extricate themselves from a wait list."
The Canadian experience provides an opportunity to anticipate the future of health care delivery in the United States.
Over the past 20-30 years, the practice of medicine has been slowly morphing into a government-run enterprise, often with private health insurance companies acting as the intermediaries. Medicare price controls serve as templates for private insurance reimbursement arrangements. Managed care, encouraged and nurtured by federal legislation, requires providers to obtain authorization from faceless bureaucrats in order to provide many services they deem necessary for their patients. Guidelines and protocols, drawn up by committees and panels serving federal regulators, are imposed upon providers, requiring them to practice according to one-size-fits-all to models or face financial or even legal sanctions.
While not the simple Canadian style single-payer system, the U.S. system, especially with the advent of the Affordable Care Act, gets us to the same place—only in a more Byzantine fashion. True, there are multiple payers, but the insurance companies, as a result of the ACA, have become nothing more than publicly regulated utilities. The policies they will be allowed to offer patients are all designed and predetermined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The provider payment provisions, as well as the coding system, as has been the practice for years, will be pegged to Medicare reimbursement schedules.
Already we are seeing increasing numbers of doctors retire or slow down their practices in response to the changing practice environment. Many are selling their practices to hospitals and becoming shift-working hospital employees. Still others are dropping out of all insurance plans—even Medicare in some instances—and embarking on cash-only “concierge” medical practices.
In the meantime, demand for health care continues to rise, as 10,000 baby boomers become Medicare beneficiaries every day—and will continue to do so for the next 18 years. Emergency rooms continue to be overcrowded, as many people use them to obtain services that would otherwise be given by primary care providers, because they can’t get in for appointments.