Canadian federal government warns provinces against health care charges

FILE PHOTO: Provincial and Territorial premiers gather to discuss healthcare in Ottawa

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government has warned provinces and territories to ensure that necessary medical services remain free to avoid reduction in federal funding, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Friday, calling a rise in cases of Canadians having to pay for health services "unacceptable".

The Canada Health Act (CHA) governs the publicly funded healthcare system, which is meant to offer Canadians equitable access to medical care based on their needs, not their ability to pay.

"There has been evidence of residents paying out of pocket to access diagnostic services ... that should be accessible at no cost. This is not acceptable and will not be tolerated," Duclos said in a statement.

Duclos said "a mandatory deduction must be taken from" a province's federal funding if it allows medical services to charge patients for necessary health procedures.

Canada's public healthcare systems have been under strain thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic and staffing shortages that have left hospitals stretched to the breaking point.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government last month outlined a 10-year funding plan to support provinces and territories to fix the overburdened healthcare system.

On Thursday, Duclos sent a letter to provincial and territorial health ministers on "upholding the CHA to protect Canada's publicly funded health care system," according to the statement.

The crackdown's main targets are companies that charging patients for virtual visits with a family physician, CBC News reported, citing a senior government official.

Companies have started using what critics call a loophole in Canadian law to charge for some health services by virtually connecting patients to doctors in a different province, CBC News said. Under the medicare rules in the province where the doctor practices, the patient technically would not qualify for free services.

(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; editing by Grant McCool)