Skip to content

Les Leyne: B.C. and Telus settle health argument

Dispute erupted last year over whether Telus was extra billing customers to see doctors.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Everything is once again right between the B.C. government and Telus Health after the corporation agreed to stay in its lane while providing medical services.

Health Minister Adrian Dix announced a settlement Wednesday of a dispute that erupted last year over whether the company was extra billing customers to see doctors.

They were definitely billing customers several thousand dollars a year for wraparound health care above and beyond medically necessary treatment. And they definitely had doctors on staff treating patients. But was the fee for the comprehensive, non-insured ancillary treatments? Or did the purchase price include the right to see a doctor as well?

The latter is against the law, because it would allow people to buy their way past the lineups that now form daily outside many clinics.

Telus Health got into that business line after buying a private clinic that had been working the grey area for years. It was one of many acquisitions that have turned the company into a global player in the comprehensive health-care field.

But the clinic purchase brought them a lot of scrutiny from the Health Ministry. The company denied that the LifePlus plan it was selling amounted to extra billing. Dix ordered the Medical Services Commission to investigate whether the business plan was legal. The probe lasted months and produced enough evidence that the commission went to court last December seeking an injunction to shut down LifePlus.

Telus Health denied that the program conflicted with the law. The company described it as a preventative, add-on service and the fee was for the ongoing ­services by way of dieticians, kinesiologists and wellness therapies.

The application prompted several months of negotiation that culminated in the deal announced Wednesday.

Telus Health committed to make “agreed-upon operational changes” to ensure compliance with the Medicare ­Protection Act. On that basis, the ­commission suspended its ­pursuit of an injunction.

Dix said Telus Health will no longer offer physician services to new clients of LifePlus. It will still have doctors but they will offer publicly funded medically necessary services apart from LifePlus.

There will be continuity of care for current customers and the government is not going to take away their family doctors, he said. But “there will be no new patients [in LifePlus].”

The government said the settlement should serve as an indicator to others “who may be offering expensive patient-funded health care programs.”

The warning is that “charging for access, or priority access, to medically-necessary health care will not be tolerated.”

Dix said the case demonstrates the value of the Medicare Protection Act. There has always been a law governing extra billing but the NDP in 2018 toughened it.

“This is not about punishing people. It’s about providing services for patients.”

Dix appeared acutely aware that it’s the overwhelming strain on the public system and difficulty in seeing a doctor that drives the market in the first place. So he spent a considerable part of the announcement stressing various primary care initiatives, like the new payment model for family doctors, and hiring campaigns to ease wait times.

“This is how you bring change. It’s not just depending on the Medicare Protection Act. It’s not an ideological goal; it’s an effort to get service to patients.”

Dix was also eager to smooth the government’s relationship with parent company Telus, which is a major entity in B.C. and a communications partner with the government in various other health programs.

He said he was delighted with the settlement because “Telus is a great B.C.-based company that makes an “enormous … significant contribution to health care.”

He cited the work on the vaccine program, home health and electronic medical records.

“I’m very pleased to continue our work together with Telus now and in the future.”

The company issued a statement saying the settlement came from a “highly collaborative, transparent and thoughtful process.”

It said the program will be modified to ensure a clearer delineation between insured and uninsured care delivery while maintaining continuity of care for clients.

[email protected]

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: [email protected]