The federal government is seeking intervenor status in a looming B.C. court case on the use of private health insurance for essential services – a courtroom showdown that could have major implications for health care in Canada.
Ottawa wants to be involved in a case that will focus on Brian Day's private Cambie Surgery Centre in Vancouver. A trial is scheduled to begin June 6 in the B.C. Supreme Court.
Dr. Day, an orthopedic surgeon and past president of the Canadian Medical Association, is challenging the provincial Medicare Protection Act's ability to restrict residents from privately accessing health-care services also funded under the province's Medical Services Plan.
David Clements, communications director for federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, said the minister had been in touch with the federal attorney-general about the need for Ottawa to take a role in the case.
"Our role is to protect the act," he said in an interview.
Mr. Clements said the federal health department is "concerned" in all cases such as this where there may be implications for the Canada Health Act. He said an intervenor status would allow Ottawa to bring forward evidence about why the act was created and other relevant issues.
"We have a strong interest, obviously, in upholding the act and [this status] gives us an opportunity to do that," said Mr. Clements.
Vanessa Brcic, a Vancouver-based family physician who is also a board member of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, said she was relieved that Ottawa was getting involved.
"The federal government is actually recognizing the importance of their voice at the table," said Dr. Brcic, adding any verdict in this case could have implications across Canada.
Dr. Brcic said her group, which is also involved in the case, fears a legal win by Dr. Day could create a health-care system favouring those who can pay for it while waiting lists lengthen for others – a scenario that Dr. Day has rejected.
"We believe it's good because [the federal lawyers] are signalling an intention to protect the publicly funded, single-payer health-care system," Dr. Brcic said.
In an interview, Dr. Day said it was odd that the federal government is only now entering the case, which has been under way in pretrial proceedings for about seven years. The Cambie clinic has been operating for about 20 years.
"I am not afraid of federal lawyers" he said. "Why would I be?"
However, he said he was concerned that their presence might force delays in the launch of the court hearing if they seek and secure time to become familiar with the issues in the case.
Dr. Day said he wants to get into court on this matter.
"If I were afraid of the courtroom on this case, I would be wanting to delay this indefinitely. But no. We want this case to be heard."
Dr. Day has argued for a European-style health-care system in which public and private systems would operate at the same time.