Calgarian Robin Arseneault visited her doctor’s office in Marda Loop recently for a routine physical. 

Along with her husband, Robert, the Arseneaults visit the neighbourhood clinic often. That’s because Robert has high medical needs as someone with primary progressive MS, heart and bladder dysfunction, diabetes and kidney concerns. 

So the couple was surprised to see an email land from the Marda Loop Medical Clinic in their inbox that same week, stating that the clinic would be moving to a membership system.

The pricing under that membership, shared with CBC News by Arseneault, is listed as $4,800 per year for a two-parent family membership, which covers two adults and their dependent children.

Other memberships include a $2,400-per-year membership that covers one adult and their dependent children, and $2,200 per year for an individual adult membership.

“First off, we can’t afford $4,000 a year,” Arseneault said. “Secondly, I fundamentally disagree with that tiered system of health care. I can’t stand the idea that if I have more money, I get more privileged care, than say, my neighbour. It’s just against my beliefs.”

A man, woman and dog are pictured.
Bankview resident Robin Arseneault says she was shocked to learn her clinic would soon start offering a membership-based medical service, something she and her husband won’t be proceeding with. But she said that’s upsetting, as the two have established a strong relationship with their doctor. (Submitted by Robin Arseneault)

In return for the membership, the Marda Loop Medical Clinic promises reduced wait times and extended appointment times, among other benefits. The clinic also says it will continue to provide care one day a week for non-members.

CBC News was told an administrator at the clinic wasn’t available for an interview. In an email sent to the clinic’s members, Dr. Sally Talbot-Jones wrote that the clinic’s aim was to alleviate stress expressed by patients due to extended waiting times, the challenge of scheduling family appointments, and more.

“This decision was driven by my commitment to providing you with the level of care you deserve. I have extensively researched the most successful healthcare models around the world, and I am confident that our new program is designed to deliver excellence,” Talbot-Jones wrote.

The program at the Marda Loop clinic isn’t the first along these lines in Calgary. Such arrangements date back years, and they aren’t all structured in the same way.

But as the Canadian and Alberta health-care systems struggle under the weight of increased pressure — whether that’s rural emergency room closures, ambulance shortages, or overwhelmed hospitals — experts say arrangements like the one being offered at the Marda Loop clinic are becoming increasingly common.

‘Skirting the boundaries’ of what’s allowable

Back in 2008, Alberta’s health minister at the time was asked whether he had any concerns about a private clinic, the Copeman Healthcare Centre, opening up shop in downtown Calgary, charging $2,900 per year.

The clinics didn’t contravene the Canada Health Act because they didn’t charge patients for medically necessary services, CEO Don Copeman said at the time. 

Given that, then-Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert said there should be little need for such clinics if Alberta made changes to its publicly funded health-care system.

“The findings were that there was no contravention of the Canada Health Act so I wouldn’t be proposing to do any kind of review,” Liepert said.

A man speaks at a podium.
Ron Liepert, pictured in 2014, after winning the federal Conservative nomination in Calgary Signal Hill. Prior to his time as an MP, Liepert was Alberta’s health minister. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

The Canada Health Act stipulates that patients can’t be charged for “medically necessary” services, provided in a hospital or by a doctor.

There are some blurred lines here, though, when it comes to privatization in Canada.

Consider services like chiropractic services, which are not deemed medically necessary and aren’t covered in Alberta, meaning patients have to pay for those themselves, or through private insurance.

If private health-care providers charge patients for medically necessary services, the provinces that allow that have dollars clawed back by the federal government.

“So, it is not allowable that you would charge a patient as they come in to see a doctor for the care that you provide them,” said Fiona Clement, a professor who specializes in health policy in the department of community health sciences at the University of Calgary. 

“But what is being tried, and I think kind of skirting the bounds of what’s allowable, are these membership fees.”

Controversial, but no clear policy to regulate

Since the Copeman Healthcare Centre opened in 2008, many more such arrangements have followed — in Alberta, and across the country.

In 2022, researchers from Dalhousie University and Simon Fraser University released a paper tracking the number of clinics taking private payment across the country.

At the time of the analysis, which was between November 2019 and June 2020, there were 14 private clinics in Alberta with a range of membership fees and private payment. During that same period, there were 24 in Ontario and 30 in Quebec.

“While reports have documented the operation of corporate or boutique clinics in Alberta and Ontario, we do not yet have national information on the extent of these practices,” the authors wrote in the report.

In any effort to document the number of such operations, there would be some error and misclassification involved, Clement noted, as there’s no formal registry list, and no necessity to register this sort of approach.

A woman smiles at the camera.
Fiona Clement, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary in the department of community health sciences, says the biggest impact of a clinic transitioning to a membership model would be felt by the individuals who wouldn’t be equipped to afford it. (Riley Brandt/University of Calgary)

There have been ebbs and flows in the conversation at a policy level about what to do about this issue, Clement noted, but added that everyone’s a little bit hamstrung, as technically there’s nothing wrong about what’s happening.

“The college who deals with governing the professionals and making sure that doctors are adhering to their professional ethics, they’re still offering medically necessary care, and they’re not charging patients,” Clement said.

“So there’s technically no violation there. So, I really think it would have to come from the government to sort of ban these kinds of things.”

When the Copeman Healthcare Centre opened in 2008, a Calgary spokesperson with the public health non-profit group Friends of Medicare bemoaned the trend, questioning whether society wanted to allow people who have an “extra $3,000 to spend [to go] to the front of the line and everybody else can fall where they may.”

The group is increasingly concerned today.

Chris Gallaway, executive director of Friends of Medicare, called such arrangements “a violation of the Canada Health Act” and called for them to be investigated.

“We shouldn’t be creating two tiers, where some people pay to get into a certain clinic that others can’t access,” he said. 

Province says it will continue to monitor situation

In a statement, a spokesperson with Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange wrote that the government remains committed to the principles of the Canada Health Act, adding that Albertans don’t need to pay out of pocket for insured health services.

“All physicians must also follow standards of practice set by their regulatory colleges. The government will continue examine these cases to make sure all legislation is being followed,” Scott Johnston, press secretary for LaGrange, wrote in a statement.

While the province monitors developments, another health policy expert says it’s not surprising to see some doctors experiment with these kinds of solutions given the pressures they are under in terms of patient demand and rising financial pressures.

“A combination of pressures related to increasing rental prices, and for increasing staff wages, as well as just general inflation in their daily lives, I think there is a pretty large pressure to increase revenues, however possible,” said Rosalie Wyonch, lead of the health policy research program at the C. D. Howe Institute public policy think tank.

A woman types.
Rosalie Wyonch, lead of the health policy research program at the C. D. Howe Institute public policy think tank, says the responsibility for ensuring equitable healthcare services lies with the government, as they can determine which services should be publicly covered without fees. (Rob Krbavac/CBC)

In provinces across Canada, there is a lot of grey area about what makes up a full, publicly-insured service, what could what is definitely a private service, and what could be either-or, Wyonch noted.

“All of that uncertainty, it creates in some cases opportunities to generate revenue or improve access to services with some fees,” she said.

“It could also create equity concerns in terms of only being able to access services if you can afford one of these concierge services.”

In the midst of all this uncertainty, some patients like the Arseneaults worry they’ll be left behind, without many options in front of them.

“I mean, we enjoy our doctor, we get good services from the clinic. And, yeah, it’s a upsetting situation,” Arseneault said.

“It’s actually quite frightening. And it causes a lot of stress for us.”

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