09/06/2016 13:58 EDT | Updated 09/07/2017 01:12 EDT

Constitutional challenge against Canada's health-care system starts

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's decades-long failure to rein in runaway health-care costs, while allowing waiting lists to grow longer means it's time to open the door to a hybrid public-private system, a court has heard.

Peter Gall, a lawyer representing both a group of patients and the Cambie Surgery Centre in Vancouver, told B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday that easing restrictions on private health care for medically necessary services would free up resources and shorten wait times by providing a "much-needed safety valve" for the public system.

Gall told Justice John Steeves at the opening of the trial that the government has consistently failed to provide British Columbians with timely access to treatment, which prolongs their suffering and harms their physical and mental health. This failure is a violation of patients' constitutional rights to prompt treatment, he added.

"The bottom line, beyond any dispute, is that wait lists are getting longer not shorter and that the government is doing worse in meeting its own targets and not better," Gall said, speaking before more than 100 people who had packed a Vancouver courtroom.

The lawsuit challenges the province's Medicare Protection Act, its prohibition on doctors operating in both the public and private system and its embargo on the purchase of private insurance for core medical services.

"The public system simply cannot meet the health-care needs of all British Columbians in a timely manner," Gall said.

"It's necessary for the health of all British Columbians that private financing and private support in provision of core health services be permitted."

Gall said the government's approach of rationing access to treatment as a means to reduce health-care costs, such as restricting operating times, wastes the expertise and availability of doctors who are already on hand and able to perform the procedures.

Dr. Brian Day, who launched the legal action and is medical director at the private surgery centre, has long campaigned for the introduction of a hybrid health-care model, which he says resembles the European systems that receive higher grades in international health-care rankings.

The BC Health Coalition and Canadian Doctors for Medicare, both interveners in the case, say Day's legal challenge could erase medicare as residents know it and create a two-tiered, U.S.-style health-care system.

The case is expected until at least February next year.

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