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Alberta ban on private health insurance challenged in Calgary court

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CALGARY - Alberta's ban on private insurance for medically necessary services is being challenged in a Calgary court.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is supporting two men who say they were forced to pay out-of-pocket to get health care they needed in the United States.

They say they couldn't get help in a timely fashion in Alberta's public system.

Dr. Darcy Allen and Richard Cross have filed separate applications in Court of Queen's Bench that question whether the law is constitutional.

"Darcy Allen was deprived of his (Charter) Section 7 rights of security of person," said centre lawyer John Carpay.

He said Alberta's out-of-country health services committee also failed to reimburse Cross, who sought treatment for back pain in Arizona when no such treatment was available in Canada.

"The out-of-country health services committee is not functioning as a safety valve for people waiting too long for health care," he said.

Carpay wants a 2005 Supreme Court of Canada decision expanded to Alberta. That decision struck down a Quebec law that banned private insurance for medically necessary services.

The case involved Quebec doctor Jacques Chaoulli and his patient George Zeliotis, who argued that the ban on buying private insurance for health care infringed on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as on the Quebec Charter of Rights.

Zeliotis argued his year-long wait for hip replacement in 1997 violated his rights to life, liberty and security as defined under both charters.

Allen was forced to give up his dental practice in Okotoks, Alta., in 2009 due to what he says was extreme, debilitating and continuous back pain. He eventually paid $77,503 for back surgery in Montana.

He said what started in 2007 as a seemingly minor injury from playing hockey turned into around-the-clock pain that made normal tasks such as shovelling snow or tying shoelaces impossible. Allen finally received a referral for surgery in 2009, but no operation could be performed until September 2010. Then his anticipated surgery date was pushed back to June 2011.

"I'm hoping eventually that we can find a way to make this system work more efficiently," Allen said outside court.

"I don't want to see anyone go through what I did. I was able to push myself through the system fairly rapidly and even at two years that is still a year-and-a-half too long for somebody in my position."

Allen said this is not about the money he spent.

"If that door opens at some time in the future and I'm able to recover some of the costs that would be great, but that is not the purpose of this," he said.

"This is a matter of trying to get better access to health care for everybody that's out there."

The other complainant is Cross, a businessman from Calgary, who says he lived in a state of severe and continuous pain from 2006 until 2010 when he received back surgery in Arizona.

His request to have the $24,236 cost reimbursed to him was denied by Alberta's out-of-country health services appeal panel, which ruled the surgery he had was available in Canada.

Justice centre spokeswoman Carol Crosston said have access to a waiting list is not the same thing as access to health care.

"If we can help more individuals get access to care then that is what this is all about."

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