Right to know doctors' dealTHE HAMILTON SPECTATOR
(Feb 10, 2009)
For many professionals, insurance is one of the costs of doing business. That holds true for the province's doctors.
Where doctors differ, though, is that most of the cost of their insurance is picked up by the taxpayers.
As The Spectator revealed Saturday, Ontario taxpayers have spent $1.1 billion in the past decade reimbursing doctors for most of the cost of their malpractice fees. Last year, it amounted to about $112 million.
The doctors themselves paid $24 million collectively. That means we -- the taxpayers, the patients -- covered about 83 per cent of the cost of malpractice insurance.
There is an argument to be made that this makes sense. Doctors' incomes are restricted by the province, so it's logical that the province, using taxpayers' money, would cover at least part of the cost of insurance. Doctors are essentially employees of the province, although they would likely argue strenuously against that kind of definition. No doctor would practise without malpractice insurance; if we want people to become doctors, it's reasonable for the employer -- that's us -- to pay some of their insurance fees. It becomes a recruitment tool as well, which takes on more importance, given the shortages of doctors in many Ontario municipalities.
But the situation is also an outrage. These are, by and large, high-income earners who have a sweetheart deal with the province. And that's not only because they don't have to pay the bulk of their sometimes substantial insurance premiums. If they do face a lawsuit, their insurance covers representation by high-powered attorneys who seem averse to coming to reasonable settlements and prefer to draw out the legal proceedings as long as possible. And who pays for that? We do.
At the same time, those who take doctors to court over alleged malpractice are left to finance their own fight as best they can. In effect, the provincial government is funding one side of a legal battle, but not the other. The playing field is anything but level.
This situation raises many troubling questions. Is it possible that some doctors might not be as careful as they should be because this arrangement provides a safety net for them? Is it possible that some doctors might not take the outcomes of legal proceedings as seriously as they should because there is virtually no impact on their income streams? Does it make them less accountable to legal decisions?
The only reason we know anything about this at all is that a divisional court panel ordered the release late last year of details of this agreement between the provincial Health Ministry, the Ontario Medical Association and the Canadian Medical Protective Association. The court ruling came after a Freedom of Information request.
It is absolutely reasonable that those who foot the bills -- that would be us -- have a right to this information. And we should be able to exercise that right without being forced to go to court. At the very least, we should be able to expect some public accountability, perhaps through the Ontario ombudsman's office. After all, it is our money.