© 2004  Karen Selick
Help a Hero Help You
An edited version of this article first appeared in the January, 2004 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Help a Hero Help You

Heroes abound in novels, but are extremely rare in the real world.  That’s why I was so delighted to meet one recently, by lucky happenstance, in Montreal.

His name is Jacques Chaoulli, and he is the doctor who will be challenging Quebec’s laws on health and hospitalization insurance before the Supreme Court of Canada this spring. 

He’ll be asking the court to declare two provisions of Quebec law unconstitutional:  Article 15 of the Quebec Health Insurance Act, and Article 11 of the Quebec Hospital Insurance Act. The former prohibits insurance companies from selling health insurance plans covering any service covered by the government plan.  The latter prohibits doctors who choose not to participate in the government insurance plan from contracting with patients (oops, pardon me—with Quebec-resident patients) to provide any in-hospital services that would be covered by the government plan.

Together, these two sections have the effect of forcing Quebec residents to use the government health care monopoly (which almost always means waiting in line) or else flee the province to purchase the treatment they need.  Ironically, non-residents can come to Quebec and purchase whatever medical services they wish, no matter how many Quebecers are languishing in pain, going blind or dying on the waiting lists. 

This forbidding of private medical care is not unique to Quebec.  Virtually every province does the same.  Canada, however, is an anomaly in international circles.  Every other OECD country, including many that are far more socialized than Canada, allows its residents to purchase private medical services that parallel those provided by the state-run health plan.  Instead of keeping pace with the developed countries, we’re keeping company with Cuba and North Korea.

But what makes Dr. Chaoulli a hero?  It’s not just that I happen to agree with him in wanting to see the state health care monopoly demolished.  It’s the way he has gone about getting to where he is today, poised to make his case before Canada’s highest court. 

First of all, there’s his extraordinary tenacity.  He began this epic battle in 1997 and has been pursuing it for over six years, despite adverse judgements both at the trial level and before the Quebec Court of Appeal.  Most litigants would have become disheartened and quit by now, but when I met with him, he remained optimistic that he would finally win the last but most important round. 

Secondly, there are the exceptional measures he has taken to pilot his case through the court system.  He is representing himself, without a lawyer.  He actually took two years off from his medical practice and went to law school for a year in order to learn what he’d need to know.

Third, unlike the whiners who milk the Court Challenges Program to get their charter challenges into the courts, Dr. Chaoulli has funded this litigation entirely from private sources.  Much of the money has come out of his own pocket, with some from a handful of sympathizing donors. Not only does he believe in private-pay medicine, he also believes in private-pay litigation.  How refreshingly consistent.  Of course, a win would give Dr. Chaoulli some personal benefits (although I suspect they’d be more spiritual than financial) yet would also make him a public benefactor, liberating Canadians to purchase faster and better health care than our political masters deign to give us.

There are a few other heroes associated with the case.  One is Dr. Chaoulli’s father-in-law, who helped him support his family while he was busy going through law school and making court appearances.  Then there are lawyers Bruce Johnston and PhilippeTrudel, who are representing Dr. Chaoulli’s co-plaintiff George Zeliotis pro bono.  Mr. Zeliotis is a patient of Dr. Chaoulli’s who had to wait almost a year for hip-replacement surgery back in 1997, in excruciating pain.  He would willingly have paid privately for prompt surgery, had it been legal to do so.   Mr. Zeliotis’ goal in the litigation is to make sure this nightmare never happens to him—or anyone else—again. 

What are the main obstacles in Dr. Chaoulli’s way?  On the intellectual level, it’s the conviction shared by a great number of Canadians—including the trial judge—that if the state permits the existence of private medicine, it will destroy the public system.  Sigh, if only.  Alas, this belief seems to be rooted more in fear than in reality.  Private schools co-exist with public schools here in Canada and haven’t noticeably sapped the population’s support for the public system.  Private health insurance and private hospitals exist even in socialist Sweden, yet the public system keeps rolling right along just the same. 

On the practical level, Dr. Chaoulli is struggling with the cost of preparing for the appeal, which he estimates will be between $30,000 and $40,000.  I’ve sent him a donation and told him I’d invite my readers to do likewise.  If you’re interested in supporting this worthwhile cause, you can send cheques payable to Dr. Chaoulli to me at Box 1327, Belleville, Ontario K8N 5J1 and I’ll pass them along. 


- END -


..... ..... 


April 18,, 2004