The province’s Medical Services Commission is now acting on the findings from its review of fees charged at some Telus-owned medical clinics, says British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix.
The results of the review are yet to be made public and Dix told The Tyee there is little he can share at this point.
But the process is moving ahead and the findings will be made public when the independent body completes its work, he said.
“They do a review and then their job is to act on that review,” he said, stressing the Medical Services Commission’s independence. “It’s obviously a sign that they’re taking awhile.” With representatives from the government, Doctors of BC and the public, the nine-member Medical Services Commission manages the Medical Services Plan and is responsible to ensure some $2.5 billion is spent in accordance with the province's laws and regulations.
BC Green Party Leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau said people in the province deserve prompter answers.
“It’s very surprising how long this is taking,” she said. “I would expect the minister to be concerned about that.”
Dix talks a lot about equitable access to health care, Furstenau said, but the role of corporations and privatized health care have grown under his watch.
The Medical Services Commission began the Telus review back in February at the request of the Health Ministry.
Telus bought clinics operating under the brands Medisys, Copeman Healthcare and Horizon Occupational Health Solutions in 2018 as part of a $2.5-billion expansion into health care. The move was intended to differentiate it from telecommunications competitors and grow revenues.
Earlier this year potential patients were quoted fees of $4,600 for the first year, then $3,600 for each year after that for service at the clinics.
Under the Medicare Protection Act, doctors who receive payments under the public Medical Services Plan may not charge a patient directly for any service normally paid for through public insurance.
A Telus spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for an update on the Medical Services Commission review, but the company has previously told The Tyee the annual fees are not for necessary services covered by MSP, but for services that the public system doesn’t cover.
Those services include an annual preventative health assessment and access to “various health and wellness providers” such as kinesiologists, physiotherapists, psychologists, mental health counsellors and dietitians.
When Dix was in opposition and acting as health critic, he rejected that argument. “People aren’t paying for those services, and everyone knows it.... You’re paying for the right to see a family doctor.”
As minister, a role he has filled since the NDP formed the government in 2017, Dix has emphasized that the question is around billings and what patients are being charged for, not whether Telus or other companies should be involved in the health-care system.
Family doctors have always operated as independent businesses and private ownership isn’t itself the issue, he has said. In the case of Telus, he has argued it is a B.C.-based company that has been integral to the province’s pandemic response and immunization drive. The ministry's concern is limited to the charging of annual fees, which is what the MSC was to review.
To Furstenau, the government’s relationship with Telus appears cozy.
She pointed out that in April, at a time when the MSC review was underway, the government appointed Julia Eleanore Dillabough to the board of the Provincial Health Services Authority. Dillabough works for Telus as the manager of community and service excellence for Telus, according to PHSA’s website.
The appointment raises questions considering Telus’s efforts to insert itself into health-care delivery in the province, Furstenau said.
“There are also questions about whether Telus is operating outside of the Health Act in charging for this yearly rate for people to get access to their clinics,” she said. “While this is being investigated by the Medical Services Commission, this government, and I expect this minister, thought that it was appropriate to appoint somebody to the PHSA board that works for Telus. That raises questions.”
It’s also clear from lobbyist reports that Telus representatives, some of them with close ties to Dix, are active.
Telus Corp. CEO Darren Entwistle is registered to talk on behalf of both Telus and Medisys to public office holders about “potential and ongoing use of various health services offered by Telus, including virtual care, remote health monitoring and symptom triage systems.”
The company also has consultants from Strategies 360 actively lobbying for it. One of them is Stephen Howard, who was Dix’s chief of staff when Dix was leader of the Opposition. Others are former BC NDP executive director Michael Gardiner and former party director Raj Sihota.
With Telus under MSC scrutiny, Furstenau said, it’s important that Dix say what he thinks about the company’s involvement in the province’s health-care system.
“It’s really critical that the minister state very clearly what he believes to be the vision for health care and the role that a company like this should be playing,” she said. “I think he needs to be able to convey and communicate in the clearest of terms whether he thinks it’s appropriate for a company to be operating in this manner.”
It’s also important that the results of the Medical Services Commission's investigation into Telus be made public, Furstenau said.
“Every government right now at every level should be recognizing that they have a very serious responsibility to build public trust and the way you build public trust is you are transparent and you are accountable,” she said. “To not make public the findings of the Medical Services Commission on this issue is to erode public trust.”
Dix said those results are coming. “They don’t just do a review and send a report to me,” he said. “They do a review and take action on that review and that’s what they’re in the process of doing I understand.”