A Conservative candidate's suggestion that a private clinic be used as a model for health delivery across Canada has prompted opposition charges that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to expand for-profit health care outside the public system.

Peter Kent made the comment during a recent campaign debate in Toronto's Thornhill riding. He subsequently insisted in an interview with The Canadian Press he was not backing the contentious notion of a separate system of private health care.

His Liberal opponent in Thornhill, incumbent Susan Kadis, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May countered that an expansion of private hospitals modeled after the Shouldice Hospital — which profits in part by providing hernia surgery paid through the public system for Ontario residents — would erode medicare and lead to a two-tier system.

"Thornhillers don't need to be reminded that the best example of efficient private delivery of public health care is right here in our own community," Kent said in the debate last week with other Thornhill candidates.

"We need more Shouldice institutes right across the country," he added. "That's one way we'll be able to meet the challenges of health care".

The Liberals circulated Kent's statement by email and he confirmed them in a weekend interview.

But Kent said he was "not at all" proposing a parallel private system.

Kent defends statement

Kent, a former broadcaster who ran unsuccessfully for the Conservatives in the 2006 federal election, argued that Shouldice provides hernia surgeries more efficiently than public hospitals at a lower cost.

"I think Shouldice is a perfect example of private health services delivered within the public health-care system," he reiterated. "I think we have to repeat the success of Shouldice across the country".

A spokesman for Harper rejected the claims that Harper and the Conservatives want to establish a parallel private system in Canada. "Our government's goal is to work with the provinces to ensure health care is paid for through the public system," said communications director Kory Tenecyke.

Shouldice Hospital has been a subject of controversy in past elections. Although it is privately owned, it receives public money and patients are treated without extra charge.

Exempted from ban

The 89-bed hospital was established in 1945 and, because of its long history and specialized care, was exempted from a ban on private health services when Ontario introduced its public health act in 1973. It is now the only private hospital allowed under the act.

The Ontario Health Insurance Plan pays surgery and ward costs at Shouldice for Ontario residents, who pay for the hospital's semi-private rooms themselves, according to the hospital's website.

An essay on the hospital published in 2000 by the Canadian Union of Public Employees accused Shouldice of engaging in "cream skimming" by only accepting patients who require straightforward hernia operations, while referring costlier, more complicated surgery to the public system.

The essay said Shouldice makes a profit by focusing on basic surgery through OHIP, as well as treating U.S. and out-of-province patients. The union said at the time that Shouldice was an "anomaly" that did not represent a threat to the public system.

Video stirs controversy

Kent was at the centre of another controversy on Sunday.

Executives of CBC News and CTV News moved to distance their networks from a video that appeared on Kent's campaign website.

The video shows notable Canadian journalists, including CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge and CTV anchor Lloyd Robertson, lauding Kent for his journalistic achievements.

CBC News publisher John Cruickshank issued a statement saying: "Neither Peter Mansbridge nor CBC News have in any way endorsed Mr. Kent, the Conservative Party of Canada or any other political party or candidate."

CTV News president Robert Hurst said the taped appearances by Robertson and former CTV journalist Pamela Wallin were made more than two years ago for a broadcast industry event.

"CTV would like to clarify that neither Ms. Wallin, Mr. Robertson nor CTV News have in any way publicly endorsed Mr. Kent, the Conservative Party of Canada or any other political party or candidate," Hurst said in a statement.