British Columbia

'We should be concerned': Think tank alarmed about corporate partners in public health care

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is calling out Vancouver Coastal Health for inviting a for-profit company to manage an urgent primary care centre and is worried about future corporate influence in public health care.

CCPA warns of 'systemic danger' in corporate involvement; health minister says it improves access to doctors

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says patient care could be compromised if corporations are invited to invest in urgent primary care centres in B.C. (Goodluz/Shutterstock)

A left-leaning policy think tank is calling out Vancouver Coastal Health for inviting for-profit companies to run at least one urgent primary care centre in British Columbia — and is worried this is only the beginning of a trend that could compromise patient care.

In a news release, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said a private business called Seymour Medical was contracted by VCH to run Vancouver's first urgent primary care centre, which opened on Hornby Street in November 2018.

Alex Hemingway, a CCPA economist and policy analyst, says the health authority is considering the same arrangement for a new centre to be built near Cambie and West 57th Avenue. 

In an interview Thursday with CBC's The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn, Hemingway said CCPA has obtained documents through freedom of information requests that show VCH is inviting "a number of large corporations to potentially bid."

'Systemic danger'

As part of the Ministry of Health's efforts to improve primary care in B.C., health authorities are rolling out new urgent primary care centres that are meant as alternatives to emergency departments and walk-in clinics for urgent but non-life-threatening health-care needs.

They become a powerful lobby group that can work to expand their profits- Alex Hemingway, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

According to Hemingway, there is a "real systemic danger" in involving corporate interests in public health care.

"They become a powerful lobby group that can work to expand their profits," he said. 

Hemingway said the patient experience will feel similar at a public clinic managed by a private company. Services will still be free and staffed by doctors paid by the province.

But he said private ownership could cause "administrative duplication" and reduce efficiency and compared it to the pharmacare system in Canada, which he said is still largely privatized and "highly inefficient."

Minister responds

On Friday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said he understands the CCPA's criticisms and is working on having more community health centres with non-profit boards, but he does see the benefits of some private partnerships, which he says can actually complement emergency care

"This is building our public health care system," said Dix.

Dix said he is proud of the Vancouver care centre on Hornby Street, and that Seymour Medical has been running clinics in Vancouver "longer than we have had public health care."

He said the primary goal for the province is to improve doctor access for approximately 750,000 British Columbians who did not have a family doctor when John Horgan became premier.

Sometimes it makes more sense to partner with an existing clinic to do that, as recently happened in Nanaimo, Dix said.

In a statement, VCH said the contract with the Seymour Medical Group is similar to contracts with not-for-profit health service providers and the same standard of care is required regardless of who operates the care centre.

The Early Edition