If Health Minister George Abbott wanted to insult British Columbians any more effectively this week he would have needed to go door to door giving people the finger.
The opposition raised important health-care questions this week as the three-day sitting ended. Two-tier health care has been expanding in B.C. for a decade, as clinics offer speedier, better treatment for patients willing to pay extra.
The latest incarnation is the boldest. The owners of the False Creek Surgical Centre are opening a private emergency room this week. Come up with the $199 examination fee, plus extra for tests and treatment, and you won't have to wait around in an overcrowded hospital emergency room.
Some people think that's fine. But Canadians have so far decided that people's access to health care shouldn't depend on how rich they are. Parliament passed the Canada Health Act to create a law to make sure that doesn't happen. It's illegal to charge an extra fee for medically necessary procedures in Canada. Most people support that idea. If a child is injured, or a grandparent falls ill, we have decided that their treatment shouldn't depend on how much the family can afford to pay. We've agreed to ration health care based on need, not by auctioning off access to the highest bidder.
The surgical clinics, and now the private ER, violate that principle. If two children fall ill, rich parents can buy quick treatment. The other child, even if sicker, will wait in an often crowded, dismal and chaotic hospital emergency room.
The NDP tried to ask questions about the private ER in the legislature. Abbott's response was appalling.
The first question, from NDP leader Carole James, asked why Abbott was apparently caught off-guard by the new business. The operators offered the health ministry a briefing 10 months ago, but he only learned of the plan last weekend.
Abbott didn't answer. Instead he went off on a rant about the NDP government's failure to do anything about the False Creek Surgical Centre when it opened in 1999.
He's right. The New Democrats can be blamed for allowing private two-tier care to take hold. But the public is not much interested in what happened seven years ago and Abbott is the health minister today.
James tried again. Abbot responded by listing other private surgical centres that opened their doors in the 1990s.
You get three tries in Question Period. James used her third to ask about other two-tier care issues raised in the last year, including the opening of the Copeman Clinic in Vancouver. Abbott responded by noting federal NDP leader Jack Layton had hernia surgery done in a private Ontario clinic - hardly important to British Columbians wondering if they should start saving to ensure they can afford first-rate ER care for their parents or children.
Maybe Abbott is still smarting from the shoddy way NDP cabinet ministers responded to Liberal questions. Maybe he thinks the legislature is just a place to talk trash and score political points.
But I like to think the New Democrats were booted out, at least in small part, because of their refusal to recognize that MLAs - even opposition ones - were asking questions on behalf of the people who elected them and deserved serious answers. Even when the questions were couched in their own political rhetoric.
Spout nonsense in response and you insult all British Columbians who want real answers. These are real, important questions. The Liberals have failed to address the expansion of private two-tier care. They introduced and passed legislation to make it easier to enforce the Canada Health Act in 2003, but Premier Gordon Campbell then decided not to implement it. Issues like the Copeman Clinic and the private sale of MRIs on equipment in public hospitals drag on with no resolution. And the ministry didn't even think the private ER issue was worth a meeting with the owners.
It's a shoddy way to let public health care erode.
Footnote: Abbott was more forthcoming outside the legislature. He allowed that he shouldn't have been in the dark about the clinic's plans 10 months after ministry staff was told of them. And he said it appeared that the private ER violated the Canada Health Act and B.C. medicare protection legislation. The doors open this week.