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Groups' legal action aims at Canada Health Act enforcement in Quebec

Lawyer Jean-Pierre Menard speaks at a news conference in January 15, 2013, in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Various health groups have joined forces to launch legal action against the federal government to ensure it applies the Canada Health Act in Quebec and across the country.

The goal is to obtain a court order that would force the federal health minister to "fulfil a statutory duty" to prevent overbilling through extra fees.

"With the legal proceeding, the federal government can no longer ignore the thousands of Canadians who are being robbed of their rightful access to free and quality health-care services," Danis Prud'homme, director general of a group that represents Quebecers 50 and over, told a news conference Tuesday.

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The plaintiffs say the Quebec government instituted a two-tier medical system last November when it passed Bill 20, which they argue violates the Canada Health Act by permitting and regulating add-on fees.

According to Jean-Pierre Menard, the lawyer who filed a petition for a writ in Federal Court on Monday on behalf of the plaintiffs, Quebecers are paying $50 million to $70 million a year in extra fees.

The groups say the is type of legal action for a matter pertaining to the federal health legislation has never been attempted before.

A doctor who represents Canadian Doctors for Medicare said extra billing and user fees are "precisely the kind of barriers the act was designed to eliminate."

"When doctors begin charging accessory fees, it creates a two-tier health-care system —one for those who can afford it and one for those who cannot," Dr. Brian Hutchison told the news conference.

Hutchison said extra billing has been on the rise across the nation.

In Saskatchewan, for example, patients can pay to skip waiting lists for MRIs, while he added the Supreme Court of British Columbia will hear a case this fall where the plaintiff, Dr. Brian Day, co-owner of the Cambie Surgery Centre, will argue the Canada Health Act is unconstitutional.

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Menard noted the lawsuit will target all types of extra billing in Canada, although he said Quebec is clearly the "worst offender."

In Ottawa, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said the government would "absolutely uphold the Canada Health Act."

Although she would not address the situation in Quebec specifically, she said she would discuss the matter with the attorney general of Canada.

"I simply want Canadians to know that we will uphold this act, we will make sure Canadians will have access to medically necessary care," said Philpott.

"I look forward to addressing what barriers to access have been in place."

The petition was filed under various sections of the Canada Health Act which stipulate the conditions the provinces must meet in order to collect the full amount of the Canada Health Transfer.

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"Basically, Sec. 18 stipulates a province is not entitled to full compensation when there is overbilling," Menard said. "Sec. 20 indicates that the amount of the overbillings is deducted from the federal contribution."

Menard estimates the case could be heard in about nine to 12 months.

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