Buoyant Action Assembly renews plan to tackle privatization

Photograph of Sean Meagher and Steven Shrybman at the Ontairo Health Coalition Action Assembly.

Sean Meagher (ED of Canadian Doctors for Medicare) and lawyer Steven Shrybman discuss the potential threat to Canadian Medicare by the Charter challenge in the BC Supreme Court.

They had to dodge a marathon to get there, but it was worth it.

Participants at this weekend’s Ontario Health Coalition Action Assembly were in a buoyant mood despite the many challenges facing the health system.

Rather than finding defeat, activists took heart that Canadians still feel strongly about public Medicare despite a much more well-funded opposition from business elites.

The delegates crammed into a modest community centre gym where getting to a speaker’s microphone was at times a logistical challenge. It wasn’t lost on anyone that this low-budget grassroots organization was having a significant impact in defending our public health system as Director Natalie Mehra listed off successes the coalition has achieved over the past year.

“If the public was not with us Medicare would have been gone a long time ago,” said Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, who participated in a panel looking at how we push back.

Grinspun warned that “medical tourism” threatened to bring an end to the single tier system. If Ontario hospitals were selling a ticket to the front of the line to international patients with money, it was only a matter of time before rich Ontarians demanded the same right. That principle is what is keeping the RNAO fighting so hard on this issue.

Photograph of Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario.

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the RNAO, warns that Medical Tourism could lead to broader two-tier health care in Canada.

Grinspun said some hospitals have been throwing up a smoke screen arguing she is trying to prevent treatment for the children of Gaza and other international conflicts. “That is not medical tourism,” she said.

To sign the RNAO’s on-line petition to ban medical tourism, click here.

Sean Meagher, Executive Director of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, spoke about the refusal of governments to enforce laws intended to protect our single-tier system. He pointed out that Dr. Brian Day’s private BC clinics flaunted the law for eight years before the provincial Nurses’ Union petitioned the BC Supreme Court to force the Medical Services Commission to do its job.

With a very limited audit, the BC Medical Services Commission found of 468 cases they reviewed that 205 involved almost $500,000 in extra billing prohibited by law.

Day in turn issued a Charter Challenge which was originally supposed to be heard in September, but that challenges has instead been postponed as Day negotiates directly with the BC government.

While there is considerable risk in the court case, activists are concerned that any agreement between the right-wing BC government and Day to permit extra billing will have a ripple effect across Canada.

“CDM decided that this is where we draw a line in the sand,” Meagher said. He warned that extra billing will bring in a flood of U.S. companies looking to profit from Canadians. “Once they are here it will be hard to get them out again,” he said.

Steve Shrybman, a partner in the law firm Sack, Goldblatt and Mitchell, said while the BC lawyers were doing a good job of preparing for the Day case, he will be happy if the case never goes forward.

Day’s challenge “should fail based on evidence,” he said, “but so should have Chaoulli” (the parallel and successful 2005 Quebec Charter case). Shrybman worries that it could be a trial-by-anecdote.

While Shrybman is confident in the BC government’s lawyers, he is less confident of any closed-door deal the provincial government strikes with Day.

“You don’t want to wake up in 10 years and find Medicare is gone,” said Shrybman.

Heather Whiteside, co-author of Private Affluence, Public Austerity, spoke about the spread of private financing and development of public infrastructure. She said that there has been a “covert policy change to normalize” public-private partnerships. Whiteside says governments have implemented policies to force local authorities to explain why they are not using this privatized method of funding, building and operating public infrastructure.

The author and academic says the spread between public and private financing costs can represent as much as 70 per cent more in present value terms.

Contrary to the claims that such privatization speeds up construction of needed infrastructure, she says these projects are often delayed, pointing to the delay of the Niagara Health System’s new St. Catharines hospital over financing issues following the 2008 economic collapse.

Most worrisome, in the age of austerity such privatized projects will tie the hands of government for years. Whiteside says that many of the UK’s Health Trusts are teetering on bankruptcy as a result of the number of public-private partnerships. The public is also getting increasingly outraged by exorbitant billings from these private consortiums that include charges of $136 (Cdn) to install an air freshener, $819 (Cdn) to install a smoke alarm or $182 (Cdn) to move a leaflet rack.

Author Linda McQuaig told the audience the issue of sustainability is misleading, particularly as the Federal government is anticipating a $5 billion surplus.

McQuaig says federal tax cuts since 2000 are now costing us $50 billion per year in lost revenue. “That is the Conservative revolution in a nutshell – starve government from building national programs.”

By whipping up a hatred for taxation, the Conservatives are making it difficult to restore programs even if they lose power.

Of the $5 billion surplus, the NDP plan to use a part of it to give Canadians more access to affordable child care. The Conservatives? Their income splitting plan will cost the entire amount and not benefit 86 per cent of families. The top 1% of earners, however, will see a net benefit from income splitting of about $6500 a year per family.

Natalie Mehra spoke about the coalition’s ongoing campaign to stop Ontario from contracting out hospital services to private for-profit clinics. Mehra gave numerous examples of Ontarians unexpectedly finding “administrative” fees when receiving publicly insured services through these clinics. The OHC is mobilizing now towards a November 21st demonstration at Queen’s Park over the issue.

Sponsored by OPSEU, Saturday night Moyo Theatre’s Tainted began its two-week tour at the nearby Foundery. After an enthusiastic reception to the performance, playwright Kat Lanteigne and tainted blood survivor Andy Cumming answered questions.

Cumming, who works as a Hedge Fund Manager, said that while he is a capitalist, he recognizes that the blood system should not be subject to the private market, pointing out the profit motive places blood recipients at risk. At the time Cumming was infected, Canada was importing plasma from U.S. prisons and skid row.

Tainted tickets still available for performances in Hamilton, London, Windsor, Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay. E-mail contact@moyotheatre.com to reserve your seats.

On Saturday the OHC hammered out its action plan for the coming year, which includes a renewed focus on privatization and public-private partnerships.

Sunday’s start was delayed by 30-minutes as participants found a way through the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The Marathon cut off the Assembly hall from access by public or private transportation. That left delegates to find their way on foot to the meeting hall.

Photograph of author Heather Whiteside.

Co-author of Private Affluence, Public Austerity, Heather Whiteside says P3s cost more and are less innovative.

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