Halifax – Much of the health care Canadians receive today comes from private sources, yet the most heated debate in Canada revolves around public versus private health care. In fact, the public versus private debate threatens to all but hijack the annual convention of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) next week as Dr. Brian Day is formally nominated as president-elect.

The problem for some physicians is that Dr. Day is medical director of a private clinic in British Columbia. Some fear that the election of Dr. Day would polarize a CMA already deeply divided on the private versus public issue.

The first Background Paper produced by the Canadian Health Care Consensus Group (CHCCG) indicates such disagreements could be dissipated rather quickly, if people just defined what it is they mean by the two terms. Going Public on What is Private shows that people confuse the payment for the service with the supply of the service when entering the public versus private fray.

“Most of us get most of our health care from private sector suppliers,” the paper points out. “Doctors, for example, and especially family physicians, are, in economic terms, small, for-profit businesspeople. They happen to earn most of their income by supplying services to the publicly funded health care system, but, for all we hear about doctors’ salaries, they’re not actually employed by it. They earn revenue by supplying individual services to individual consumers, out of their revenue they pay their costs of practice – labour, equipment, rent, electricity and all the rest – and what’s left they take home as income.”

The vast majority of doctors, dentists, opticians and optometrists, pharmacists, chiropractors, and purveyors of natural remedies work in the private sector, in the sense that they’re not salaried public sector employees.

Going Public on What is Private also looks at the terms for-profit and non-profit as they relate to physician and hospital services. It suggests the argument that Canadian hospitals are actually private non-profit institutions run by a board of directors is a fallacy.

The CHCCG Background Paper explains the reality of the situation in this country, “The Canadian experience is full of episodes of provincial departments of health closing or merging hospitals, and telling hospitals what services they may or may not supply. Hospital boards and hospital management have decision making authority only so long as the decisions they make are the decisions the provincial departments of health want them to make.”

It suggests the quality of hospital care won’t improve until hospital managers are allowed to manage.

The background paper also points out that there have been dramatic changes in technology since Canada’s Medicare act came into being. Yet Canada’s medicare system has not changed to reflect those innovations. Many of the procedures that then required hospitalization can now be performed in much less expensive settings, like stand alone specialty clinics, or even doctors’ offices. Opponents of greater private initiative on the supply side of care generally have no objection when the government decides to establish such clinics; it’s when a group of doctors see a need and, without waiting for government action, take steps to fill it that the red flags go up.

The paper suggests that much of the opposition is ideological. “A great many opponents of private supply initiatives firmly believe that doctors simply can’t be trusted. It’s about time that we decided whether that’s really a good basis for Canadian health care policy.”

Members of the CHCCG came together to provide a platform for bold, reasoned and practical plans for genuine reform of the health care system and to demonstrate that there is an emerging consensus among reform-minded observers about the direction that real reform must take. The CHCCG, coordinated by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca/acedoc), one of Canada’s best-known public policy think tanks, includes medical practitioners, former health ministers, past presidents of the Canadian Medical Association and provincial medical and hospital associations, academics, and health care policy experts, all of whom are signatories to the group’s Statement of Principles.

Going Public on What is Private is the first of a series of background papers prepared for the CHCCG, which are intended to contribute to that new debate. These papers do not represent official positions of the Consensus Group, and are not themselves consensus documents, but rather are intended to act as starting points for debate, some of which will occur on the Consensus Group’s website (www.consensusgroup.ca) The first few papers will deal with aspects of the “public” versus “private” debate, while later ones will consider other issues which were raised in the Consensus Group’s Statement of Principles.

To view the CHCCG Background Paper, click here.


For further information, contact:

Brian Lee Crowley, AIMS president

Barbara Pike
Director of Communications – AIMS
902-446-3543 – o / 902-452-1172 – cell