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(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Innovation is usually a good thing, particularly when it comes to improving Canada's unwieldy public health system. Some experiments, however, risk doing more harm than good.

Legislators in Quebec are preparing a strategic shift to ease the mounting pressure on front-line care, with Bill 41 aiming to give pharmacists more power to provide therapeutic services.

Under the proposed law, pharmacists would be permitted to renew and adjust prescriptions, substitute medications, write prescriptions for minor, previously-diagnosed conditions, order lab tests, and administer drugs. Rather than clogging up the waiting areas of clinics and hospitals, waiting to see a doctor, people suffering from minor ailments will be able to pop over to the nearest drug store for a consultation with a health professional. It's about time pharmacists were recognized as more than mere pill counters, something that happened long ago in countries like France.

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The idea is laudable, the goal is admirable, but one aspect of the proposed legislation is problematic.

Rather than having pharmacists bill the Quebec health insurance authority as doctors do, the government is opting for a user-pay system; in effect, Premier Philippe Couillard, himself a doctor, is enshrining extra billing in provincial legislation.

The province is responding to a need not by fixing the system, but by de facto punting patients toward the private sector and requiring them to pay for services they could otherwise receive with their health card.

Quebec's approach over the past decade has made the province Canada's champion in terms of private health care, and while the government is trying to keep a handle on rising costs, allowing pharmacists to charge up to $30 for a consult isn't making a public service more efficient. It's simply shifting a formerly public cost on to private individuals.

It's also a clear violation of the spirit of the Canada Health Act, which guarantees universal access to publicly-funded services. The province should reconsider the fee question. Maybe then it will have discovered a useful innovation.

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