Sunny Dhillon: Financial hurdles halt lawsuit against Canada’s health-care system

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The constitutional challenge of Canada’s public health-care system has adjourned until September, with the plaintiffs arguing they have run out of money for the case and accusing the British Columbia government of stall tactics.

But the province offered no apologies for “vigorously” defending the public system and said the plaintiffs have not been sufficiently organized, accusing them of abuse of process.

The adjournment further delays a landmark case that began more than seven months ago, to significant attention, but which has since slowed to a crawl.

The matter, which is being heard in B.C. Supreme Court, had been expected to take six months but the plaintiffs are only halfway through their case and the province has not yet begun its submission.

Brian Day, medical director of the Cambie Surgery Centre, a private Vancouver clinic, in an interview Monday said the plaintiffs have run into a financial hurdle.

He said they budgeted for a six-month trial and the case has passed that point with no end in sight.

“Contrary to popular belief, we’re not a great big corporation. So we’ve had to take a break until September while we literally raise money to carry on. It’s an expensive endeavour to take on the government, a government that has unlimited tax funds to fight you with,” Dr. Day said.

“It’s not a level playing field.”

The plaintiffs – Cambie Surgeries Corp., four of its patients, and another private clinic – have argued barring patients from accessing private health care and forcing them to suffer on long waiting lists violates their Charter rights.

Counsel for the B.C. government has said a victory for the plaintiffs would “violate the fundamental principles on which the province’s universal health-care system is founded.” It has said “longer than desirable” waiting lists persist for some elective or scheduled procedures but the problem will only worsen if the plaintiffs are successful in their challenge.

Since the proceedings began in 2009, Dr. Day said, the plaintiffs have spent more than $2-million on the case. That figure includes donations made through the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is providing financial and legal support.

The province did not provide a response when asked what it had spent on the case to date.

Dr. Day pointed the finger for the slow pace of the trial at the province and said it has repeatedly stymied the plaintiffs’ attempts to introduce evidence.

“Basically, the strategy of our opponents in this case, the government lawyers, is to stop any evidence that’s valid, that proves that people are suffering on wait lists,” he said.

A B.C. Ministry of Health spokesperson in a statement defended the province’s approach.

The spokesperson said the province, in conducting its defence, has “exercised the rights available to it in the court process to ensure that the important issues in this trial are determined based on the best evidence available.”

The spokesperson said it was the province that earlier this month served the plaintiffs with an application to adjourn for 60 days to “allow the plaintiffs to properly organize their case.”

“We have been concerned with the conduct of the plaintiffs at this trial, which we believe to be an abuse of the court’s process,” the statement read, though it did not indicate how the conduct was an abuse of process.

The spokesperson said the plaintiffs and the defence will work together during the adjournment – which both parties agreed to – to “allow for a more focused presentation of evidence, reduce the number of witnesses, and reduce the time required for each witness.”

The federal government is a party to the case since it involves a constitutional question. A Health Canada spokesperson in a statement reiterated the parties will work together during the adjournment to facilitate the presentation of evidence.

When asked what the plaintiffs will do if they have not raised sufficient funds for the case by September, Dr. Day said they are determined to proceed.

“I’m sure we’ll find a way,” he said.

The Canadian Constitution Foundation in a statement Monday encouraged residents to donate to the case.