The Alberta government says it is checking into a Calgary clinic that is promising fast-track access to a family doctor along with other perks to patients who pay up to $4,800 a year.
“The Government of Alberta remains committed to the principles of the Canada Health Act. Albertans don’t have to pay out of pocket for insured health services such as seeing a family doctor or a hospital visit — that won’t change,” Alberta Health spokesman Scott Johnson said in a statement Monday.
“All physicians must also follow standards of practice set by their regulatory colleges. The government will continue to examine these cases to make sure all legislation is being followed.”
Johnson was responding to a recent email obtained and released to media Monday by the Opposition NDP from the Marda Loop Medical Clinic to its patients.
The email informs patients that as of Aug. 1, the clinic will move to a membership-based service with a suite of annual fees including $2,200 for an individual adult and $4,800 for a family.
For that fee, patients are promised reduced wait times to see a physician, extended appointments if necessary, at-home blood tests, collaborative care from the health team and discounts on skin care and physiotherapy.
The email from physician and clinic owner Dr. Sally Talbot-Jones tells patients the decision was made to provide better care in response to patient concerns about long waits for appointments.
The email promises to keep one day a week open for patients who do not sign up for the membership.
Information about the new membership program could not be found on the clinic’s website.
The Marda Loop clinic and Talbot-Jones could not be reached for comment.
The clinic is open weekdays but a message on the clinic’s answering machine Monday said it was closed for the rest of the day.
An email to the clinic asking for information and an interview with Talbot-Jones was not immediately answered.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta did not immediately return a request for comment.
Opposition NDP health critic Luanne Metz said the Marda Loop clinic plan appears to be in a legal grey zone of universal access for medically insured services.
“They may skirt the outside of the Canada Health Act by offering appointments one day a week without the membership fee so they can argue that all their insured services are still available,” Metz told reporters in Calgary.
“But this is giving preferred access to those who pay the fee.
“And while that might not clearly break the law, we all know that in real life that simply won’t work for people who need to see their family doctor right away on a regular basis.”
Metz said Premier Danielle Smith and Health Minister Adriana LaGrange must tell Albertans what, if anything, they will do about the Marda Loop membership plan.
“Alberta is at risk for losing health transfers from the federal government if we skirt around the (Canada) Health Act, but it is up to our government to decide if they want to let this happen,” said Metz.
Smith has faced concerns over comments she made before she become premier last fall, such as advocating in multiple interviews and in an academic policy paper that Albertans should pay out of pocket for some medically necessary services — such as seeing a family doctor — to ensure the system can remain sustainable over the long term.
Smith, however, has since promised her government is committed to medicare.
Her mandate letter to LaGrange last week urged her to improve the system “within the pillars of the Canada Health Act and, importantly, in alignment with our government’s Public Health Care Guarantee that no Albertan will ever have to pay out of pocket to see their doctor or receive a needed medical treatment.”
Alberta, like other jurisdictions, is trying to recruit more doctors and related health workers to fill vacancies, particularly in rural and remote areas, to alleviate strain on emergency wards.