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B.C. NDP leader John Horgan, left to right, Liberal Leader Christy Clark and B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver pose for a photo following the leaders debate in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 20, 2017.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia's three main party leaders have vowed to either reduce or eliminate a regressive premium that residents must pay to access health care, but amid the election-period mudslinging, details of their plans seem to be shifting.

The B.C. Liberal Party says in its platform it would cut the Medical Services Premium (MSP) in half for about two million B.C. residents with household incomes of less than $120,000 by January, 2018, and phase it out entirely at some undetermined date. The party calls this a "billion-dollar middle-class tax cut" that would save families up to $900 a year.

But it was the Liberals who raised the MSP rates, doubling them since forming government in 2001. And at a news conference Wednesday, Liberal candidate and Finance Minister Mike de Jong claimed the B.C. NDP – which pledged to eliminate MSP fees within four years – would have to raise various taxes to pay for it. When questioned by a reporter about how the Liberals would pay to execute the same promise, a flustered-looking Mr. de Jong said the party has said only that elimination is an "objective" and not an "unequivocal promise."

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B.C. election 2017: Politicians prepare for the ground war

The NDP seized on the comments, writing in a party e-mail that "Mike de Jong made clear today that the BC Liberals have no intention of actually getting rid of the MSP."

In a radio debate Thursday, Liberal Leader Christy Clark said the MSP's elimination would depend on economic growth. "The faster the economy grows, the faster we'll be able to eliminate it altogether," Ms. Clark said.

In the debate, NDP Leader John Horgan reiterated that the MSP doubled under the Liberals – and those who want the 50-per-cent reduction would have to register for it.

"They doubled them until their jobs were on the line and then they came up with a half-baked plan to eliminate them," Mr. Horgan said.

In its platform, the NDP says it will slash the MSP by half, as outlined in the existing 2017 budget, and eliminate it completely within four years, saving families as much as $1,800 a year. A non-partisan MSP elimination panel would be struck to determine how to pay for the plan, according to the party's platform.

However, the party created confusion of its own when NDP candidate and finance critic Carole James told reporters this week the plan is to switch to a progressive-tax system as in other provinces, where the fee increases with income through tax brackets.

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The Liberal Party, in return, suggested this is deceptive: "Nowhere in the platform do the NDP mention that they will not actually eliminate MSP, that instead they are going to switch it into the tax system," a Liberal Party e-mail read.

Meanwhile, the Green Party says it would eliminate MSP premiums and roll them into the payroll and income-tax systems so the payments are progressive, following a model used in Ontario.

British Columbia is the only province to charge flat-rate health-care premiums. Critics note the MSP unfairly burdens lower-income residents who must pay the same monthly fee as the wealthy.

"We recognize that if you're earning $50,000 a year, paying MSP is a hardship," B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said during Thursday's radio debate. "If you're earning $5-million a year, paying MSP isn't."

The Green Party's plan would eliminate the need for monthly billings, MSP debt collection and the need to apply for a 50-per-cent reduction as detailed in the Liberals' plan, Mr. Weaver said.

John Richards, an economist and professor in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, said he was unimpressed with the party promises and that a better way to go might be an efficient value-added tax on consumption.

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"The ideal thing that most of us economists would argue is that you would have the equivalent of the GST," Mr. Richards said. "But this is the province that tried to reform its sales tax, that did reform its sales tax, and there was a hell of a hullabaloo.

"It's unfortunate. What we are left with is what we see: an exercise in populist tax politics."

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