By Greg Price
While currently only a private member’s bill that has passed first reading, if Bill 207 which is currently being considered in the legislature were to pass, local doctor Jillian Demontigny says it would be a matter of life and death.
The bill centres around conscience rights for health practitioners which would provide immunity from discipline for health providers who refuse to address patient needs that offend their conscience, including opting to decline to provide a referral.
Dr. Demontigny noted Bill 207 is way too heavy handed in its extremism in that conscience rights are already protected to a degree under College of Physicians and Surgeons’ standards.
“It says if care violates the provider’s conscience, then that provider can refuse to provide care, but they are expected to make an effective referral that balances the rights of the provider who have a conscience and beliefs of their own with the rights of the patients to have access to health care in a timely and effective way,” said Demontigny. “Some types of health care can’t be just deferred indefinitely.”
Currently, a patient can file a complaint to the College of Physicians and Surgeons if they are refused a referral or information around a referral.
“For some kinds of health care, like wanting to get an abortion, earliest is best and beyond a certain point, it can’t be accessed at all. It’s really difficult to find good information on who is providing, and even if you find it, you may have to travel a long way to get it,” said Demontigny. “The complaints process still skews heavily in favour of the refusing provider. What this bill does, which goes well beyond College standards, is to change the Human Rights Act altogether. That has repercussions not only in health care, it has repercussions in housing, employment and access to education.”
In the health field alone, Bill 207 could have widespread implications. It includes practitioners of virtually every medical specialization that deals with people’s physical, mental and psychosocial conditions, and with health-related research, education and administration.
It applies to more than 30 categories of medical and mental health practitioners who provide elective, medically necessary and lifesaving treatments. The list includes emergency, primary and critical care paramedics; midwives, chiropractors, podiatrists, psychologists and psychiatrists; lab, respiratory, ultrasound and X-ray technologists; pharmacists, physiotherapists and physical therapists; opticians and optometrists; dietitians and nutritionists; anesthesiologists, surgeons, and social workers; audiologists, dental professionals and speech-language pathologists.
“It is written in the bill that the College must now dismiss any complaint made by a patient made against a physician automatically. There is no investigation. If a physician says I refuse to do that because of my beliefs, then the College is being directed by the bill to say to the patient… ‘sorry, your complaint is being dismissed,” said Demontigny. “There’s another section that reads a patient won’t have any legal recourse to make a complaint. So not only can you not complain to the College, patients are being told they can’t complain through the court of law.”
Dr. Demontigny has gone on a major multi letter-writing campaign to various politicians, noting her displeasure with proposed Bill 207 and is encouraging residents to make their feelings known as well.
Dr. Demontigny has written multiple correspondence to Taber-Warner MLA and Associate Minister of Red Tape Reduction Grant Hunter, all the MLAs that are on the standing committee for private bills, Premier Jason Kenney, and to Peace River MLA Dan Williams who introduced Bill 207 on Nov. 7.
“This harms the patient directly and also harms the profession. The majority of health care providers don’t want to not provide health care to patients. It’s a few people acting according to their belief systems contrary to patient rights are going to be undermining public trust in health care altogether,” said Demontigny. “If it changes the Human Rights Act, it can lessen the public trust in other things as well.”
The Times sent an e-mail inquiry to Minister of Red Tape Reduction Grant Hunter on Thursday afternoon to get his thoughts on her concerns and his thoughts on the bill overall.
Charlotte Taillon, press secretary for Hunter, responded that the associate minister was unavailable for an interview on Friday, and made a statement on his behalf.
“Bill 207 was recently tabled in the house. As promised by Premier Jason Kenney, all matters of conscience will be free votes. All MLAs will be free to consult with their constituents and vote accordingly, and Honourable Grant Hunter will do the same.”
While Dr. Demontigny does not believe people should be exempt from certain professions due to their belief system, she did add, tough questions have to be asked when that belief system is at odds with a person’s health needs, be it topics like abortion, contraception or medical assistance in dying etc.
“If you can’t balance between your beliefs and the beliefs of the patient, then why are you being paid public monies to see that patient while failing to provide a service?” questioned Demontigny.
Dr. Demontigny is not alone in her fear over Bill 207. Dr. Christine Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), wrote to Health Minister Tyler Shandro about her concerns on Bill 207.
Demontigny issued a letter voicing her concerns on Facebook and Twitter. At the time of the interview with the Times, the doctor’s concerns had been shared 505 times on Facebook and re-tweeted 563 times.
Dr. Demontigny has been spending a lot of her free time in the last couple of weeks drafting letters, sending out letters and responding to people’s comments, which has been trying at times.
“I’ve had a couple of very anti-choice physicians (in the province) tweeting back at me with various questions that I keep answering as honestly and sincerely as I can. There has been a lot of emotional labour that has been volunteered here. I have chosen to do it, but it has taken time and takes energy and has taken a toll on my relationships,” said Demontigny. “There are physicians and health care people across the province who are similarly investing their time and energy in standing up for patient rights against this bill. Everyone in life is a patient at one point or another.”
Bill 207 has to go through the standing committee and pass second and third reading before receiving royal assent, as the bill is still in its preliminary stages.
“Hopefully we can get rid of this bill before any more money is wasted on it, before any more people’s lives are put at stake from it,” said Demontigny. “If it goes to the courts, I imagine it will get defeated and suck up a lot of provincial dollars that we don’t have. There are already conscience rights that are very well protected. We don’t need any more roadblocks for access to health care. The one thing that is most hurtful about this bill is it keeps making it harder to do the right thing and it makes it much easier for those few who are doing the wrong thing, to do the wrong thing, and that violates basic human decency.”
Various campaigns like Dr. Demontigny’s seem to be working. Hadyn Place, legislative co-ordinator to MLA Dan Williams issued a news release on Monday afternoon stating proposed amendments to the bill.
“I am committed to ensuring this bill continues care for Albertans and maintains access to legal health care services. I am always open to further comments from professionals, colleges, and everyday Albertans,” said MLA Williams in the press release. “I have heard Albertans loud and clear — yes we want to protect freedom of conscience but also continue to ensure access to health care services. These substantial amendments are a result of collaboration to that end.”
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta stated, “CPSA has suggested amendments to MLA Mr. Williams on Bill 207 and believe the new wording is in greater alignment with our Standard of Practice. Based on the new wording, Bill 207 would not change how CPSA functions as a regulator.”