Some P.E.I. parties say they'll make virtual health care free as feds look to crack down on fees

Through the Maple virtual care program, Islanders are able to consult with a doctor via text, phone, or video conference. (Carolyn Ryan/CBC - image credit)
Through the Maple virtual care program, Islanders are able to consult with a doctor via text, phone, or video conference. (Carolyn Ryan/CBC - image credit)

Some political parties on P.E.I. have promised to make virtual health care free for all Islanders if they form government.

But that's a move the province may be forced to make, regardless of the election outcome.

The federal health minister has sent a letter to all provinces saying they need to put a stop to patients being charged for medically necessary care, including virtual care.

Jean-Yves Duclos said in the letter the practice violates the spirit and intent of the Canada Health Act.

Submitted by Courtney Massey
Submitted by Courtney Massey

The minister warned Ottawa will claw back federal health transfer payments to provinces that don't listen.

That's music to Courtney Massey's ears.

The mom of four said she used the virtual app Maple recently when she was feeling unwell. She called her experience "amazing."

"I tried every outlet I could. I tried my own doctor, couldn't get in there. I tried walk-in clinics, I couldn't get in there," she said.

"I'm left with going to sit in [the emergency department], which is only going to just clog up ... I shouldn't be there because obviously people have way bigger issues, but I also need to treat it."

David Donnelly/CBC
David Donnelly/CBC

After waiting three hours in the emergency department, someone asked if she'd tried the Maple app. The person told her it's free for people without a family doctor, but you can also pay to use it if you already have one.

"I was, like, sitting there at the hospital and I signed up for this Maple app and I saw a nurse practitioner, was given a prescription. And the call was over in probably eight minutes from start to finish," she said.

She paid $69 for the consultation.

"I would have paid like $200 just to be treated and feel better. At that point, I was not feeling very good."

Where the parties stand 

The health minister's letter came just a couple days after Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King promised to make virtual care free for everyone.

On Friday, King said the province's health-care system is continuing to evolve.

"I would agree wholeheartedly that health care's got to be public. It needs to be publicly funded. And that's the way we'll always approach it here on P.E.I.," he said.

"We started by offering the Maple app. It's what I call a pressure relief valve to take some pressure off our health-care system. The next step for us has always been to make sure that's provided free of service."

The Greens have also promised to make virtual care free for all Islanders, and would work to develop a public option.

The NDP said the party would also make virtual care fully public so no tax dollars go to private companies, like Maple.

The Liberals haven't said anything specifically about who should pay for or deliver virtual care. But the party has said it will expand services.

Charging patients doesn't violate act, department says

Meanwhile, the Health Department said in an email to CBC there's no need to act on the warning letter from Ottawa.

The department said charging Islanders who have a family doctor for virtual care doesn't violate the spirit or intent of the Canada Health Act.

But Massey said she agrees with the federal health minister.

"You pay for health care in taxes. So technically we're already paying for health care. I don't think that we should still have to pay for it above that," she said.

"And why is it only free to people who don't have a doctor? I know that it's difficult to get a doctor here and I'm very … grateful that I do have a family doctor, but they can be extremely difficult to get into."

Massey added that with walk-in clinics filling up in no time, there's not much else Islanders can do to access the care they need.