A 2011 poll conducted by Nanos Research found that 94 per cent of Canadians supported public health care. But privatization has slowly been creeping into Canada’s health care system, from privately operated MRI/CT clinics to a short-lived for-profit cancer clinic at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. In a world where wealth buys access, privatization threatens to create a two-tier system where those who can afford to pay jump the queue and receive care first.

Creating a hierarchy of care

A court case currently in front of the B.C. courts is pushing for increased private health care and could create huge ripples throughout the entire country. The case alleges that patients should be able to expedite care through private hospitals outside the public system. If successful, the legal challenge would undermine universal access to health care, a principle that’s already being eroded through privatization. The rollout of private MRI/CT clinics in Ontario, for instance, has led to the closure of clinics in small towns, forcing rural patients to travel farther to receive medical scans. For-profit health care is often centralized in large urban centres, where profit can be maximized by pushing through higher volumes. Rural communities, meanwhile, lose out.

Increasing cost and wait times

Proponents of privatized health care argue that increasing private delivery of services will decrease wait times, not only for those who pay for access but also for those using the public system. However, the Ontario auditor general found that a for-profit cancer clinic in Toronto failed to reduce patient wait lists after more than a year of operation.

Privatized health care leads to higher costs as well, which are ultimately paid by the public. Medically necessary procedures performed at private facilities are still billed through the public health care system, but the price is often higher since the private facilities need a profit return. A for-profit cancer clinic in Toronto, for example, charged $500 more per procedure than a public facility.

Since private facilities charge more for procedures, they often entice doctors, nurses, specialists and medical technicians with promises of higher wages. This reduces capacity in the public system. At least three public hospitals in Ontario were forced to reduce MRI hours after scarce technologists and radiologists transferred to private facilities.

Concerns about patient safety

For-profit health care can also raise concerns about quality and patient safety. Public outrage was sparked in Ontario when former Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that at least some for-profit clinics had been selling “medically unnecessary” scans, exposing them to unnecessary radiation. Several patients paid out of pocket to receive the scans – upwards of $1,200 in some cases.

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