Thursday, March 13, 2008

Health insurance company under fire

Calgary firm's policy called queue-jumping

Michelle Lang, Calgary Herald

Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Calgary company selling private medical insurance is at the centre of controversy in British Columbia, where critics claim it encourages patients to circumvent surgical waiting lists.

The government is investigating whether the service is even allowed under provincial law.

Acure Health Corp. offers insurance plans that send patients to a private clinic if they face a wait longer than 45 days in the public health system for a wide range of procedures -- from cataract surgeries to heart operations. The company sells the packages in B.C., Alberta and three other provinces.

The B.C. Ministry of Health said this week it's probing whether the company's services are permitted under the province's Medicare Protection Act, which prohibits most private medical insurance schemes.

The B.C. New Democrats and Alberta-based Friends of Medicare, meanwhile, say the insurance plan amounts to so-called queue-jumping for wealthy patients.

"It's another chink in the armour in terms of protecting public health," said Suzanne Marshall, executive director of Friends of Medicare.

"It's offering those who can afford it an alternative when those needs should be met by the public system."

But officials with Acure Health defended their insurance plan Tuesday, saying it's in compliance with all legislation. They also argued their patients are not queue jumping because the company takes its clients out of the public system for service at private clinics.

"You don't get involved with a program like this without making sure you comply fully with provincial and federal legislation," said Jim Irwin, a vice-president with Acure Health.

"We obey the law of the land."

Legislation in B.C., Alberta and several other provinces prohibits private insurance for medically necessary services. The law may, however, allow patients to buy insurance when the procedure is performed outside of their home province or when their surgeon has left the public health system.

Acure Health said the company ensures it is operating in accordance with legislation by sending patients with claims to private clinics in other jurisdictions for treatment.

Alberta Health officials said Tuesday this practice appears to be in compliance with provincial laws.

"Things that go on outside of Alberta, we have no control over," said Howard May of Alberta Health.

In B.C., however, ministry officials said they have been reviewing the legality of the company's services for months.

Health Minister George Abbott released a statement saying his department is considering referring the matter to the province's Medical Services Commission, which administers the Medicare Protection Act.

"The ministry has recently received legal advice on this matter and government is now considering our options for moving forward to address the potential concerns," Abbott said in the statement.

Acure Health's Irwin is confident the review won't find any problems with the company's services and said there have not been any issues in other provinces where the plan is sold, including Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

mlang@theherald.canwest.com

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