A St. John's eye doctor is suing a provincial cabinet minister and the province, claiming he was maliciously defamed.
The case stems back to comments Health Minister John Haggie made about cataract surgery in February 2018, when Haggie said his department was looking into "potential criminal activities."
Almost two years later, in January 2020, eye doctor Christopher Jackman filed a lawsuit claiming defamation and seeking damages.
"The defendant's [Haggie's] comments that the plaintiff [Jackman] was … engaging in potential criminal activities are defamatory as they maliciously allege that [Jackman] was engaged in illegal and criminal activity," Jackman's statement of claim reads.
In February 2018, Haggie told CBC News that officials were investigating reports that more than 20 people had paid directly, out-of-pocket, for publicly-insured cataract surgeries.
He also said there were reports that these surgeries were being done outside of publicly-funded provincial hospitals. At the time, that would have been a contravention of a provincial regulation requiring cataract surgeries to be done in a provincial hospital.
Haggie said the health department was investigating after received hundreds of calls to a cataract surgery information line for patients.
"If they have paid for what is an insured service, that's a clear contravention of both the Canada Health Act and our own provincial legislation, our own Hospital Insurance Act," said Haggie.
Not naming names
Haggie did not identify a doctor or a location.
"We are working through that with our hotline," he said in 2018.
"It's not appropriate for me to name names, because as you can tell from my tone and the comments I've made, there are potential criminal activities here."
Jackman claims harm
But the statement of claim Jackman filed in court said Jackman's reputation was harmed by Haggie's comments.
"It is clear the that the first defendant [Haggie] was referring to the plaintiff [Jackman] in his comments to CBC as at the time of these comments and even today [January 2020] Jackman is the only ophthalmologist operating a private surgical eye centre in Newfoundland and Labrador," it read.
The court document said Jackman never charged patients or billed the province's Medical Care Plan (MCP) for cataract surgeries done at the clinic where he works in St. John's.
Jackman performs procedures at the Jackman Eye Institute in St. John's that are not covered by MCP. In particular, MCP doesn't cover refractive lens exchanges.
This type of surgery may in fact remove a patient's cataracts in the process of replacing the eye's natural lens, but that is not what the patient is paying for —they're paying for the surgical implantation of a new, better eye lens that improves their vision.
The health minister's defence
Haggie's statement of defence, filed in March 2020, says he didn't identify Jackman when he spoke with CBC.
"The province denies that any public comments made by [Haggie] were defamatory and further denies any improper conduct," said the court document filed by lawyers with the Department of Justice and Public Safety.
It also says the province is aware of instances where patients were billed directly for cataract surgery and MCP was also billed.
Haggie's statement of defence asks for Jackman's claim to be dismissed, with costs.
CBC News requested comment from Haggie, but received a statement from the Department of Health and Community Services saying its officials could not comment on this matter because it is before the court.
Jackman was also asked for comment but declined to speak with CBC.
Jackman's lawyer is former health minister Jerome Kennedy. He didn't respond to CBC's request for comment.
2018 regulation change
The province made a change to the Medical Care Insurance Insured Services Regulations under the Medical Care and Hospital Insurance Act to allow cataract surgeries to be performed in approved private clinics.
"The medically necessary removal and replacement of a cataractous lens by any procedure shall be performed in a hospital or facility designated by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council," the regulations read.
Cataract surgery remains a publicly-funded service and a doctor who performs it must continue to bill MCP for it.