The Marda Loop Medical Clinic is seen in Calgary, Wednesday, July 26, 2023. The Alberta government says it wants an answer by today from a Calgary medical clinic surrounding plans to charge membership fees in exchange for faster access to a family doctor. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

Deadline passes, unclear whether Calgary medical clinic will move ahead with fee plan

The Alberta government says a Calgary medical clinic has responded to its demand for a decision on whether the clinic will begin charging membership fees Tuesday for faster access to a family doctor.

Alberta Health declined to say late Monday what it heard from the Marda Loop Medical Clinic, and the clinic could not be immediately reached for comment.

However, the government issued a statement from Health Minister Adriana LaGrange saying: “Should any clinic proceed with the membership fee structure or offer accelerated access to a family physician, an investigation will be conducted.”

“If non-compliance is found, Alberta Health will initiate action, which could lead to withholding payments or court mandated fines that could result in clinics needing to shut down,” she said.

“Albertans do not pay out of pocket for insured health services, such as seeing a family doctor or visiting a hospital – that will not change.”

Last Friday, Alberta Health sent a letter to the Marda Loop clinic, stating it wanted an answer by noon Monday on whether the clinic planned to begin the fee program as promised on Tuesday.

The clinic recently informed patients by email that it would still see patients who do not join the plan one day a week. The other four days would be reserved for those paying the fees.

Those fees of $2,200 a year for a single adult and $4,800 for a family include other perks, including extended appointments, at-home blood tests, collaborative care from the health team and discounts on skin care and physiotherapy.

Both the province and the federal government said the plan violates the universal access provisions of the Canada Health Act along with related provincial laws.

Premier Danielle Smith said last week that if the clinic proceeded with its fee plan, it would be shut down, fined or have medicare payments withheld.

Clinic owner and physician Dr. Sally Talbot-Jones has not returned repeated requests for an interview. In the email to patients, she said the fee plan was designed to provide better service. She told CBC last week that the decision was a response to rising clinic overhead costs.

The Opposition NDP, meanwhile, renewed a call for Smith’s United Conservative Party government to act to ensure other clinics are not stepping over the same line by charging fees to effectively allow for faster access to medically insured services.

“If Albertans are to believe Danielle Smith’s claim that she has abandoned her plans to make Albertans pay to see their family doctor, she will launch a full investigation into all clinics engaging in members-only medicine starting today,” said NDP health critic David Shepherd.

Alberta Health has said 13 clinics are charging fees but they are for services not reimbursed by the taxpayer, such as acupuncture treatments and optional surgeries, and are therefore allowed.

Health Canada has advised the province that if it doesn’t remedy the Marda Loop clinic plan, it faces cuts in federal health transfers.

In March, Ottawa clawed back close to $14 million in transfer fees to Alberta due to clinics charging fees in return for access to publicly funded MRI and CT scans. The province disagrees and is disputing the clawback.

Smith made a manifesto promisein the recent provincial election that Albertans would not have to pay for basic medical services such as visits to a family doctor.

She made the promise after the Opposition pointed out that before she became premier, Smith advocated for such measures as paying for doctor visits as a way to keep the system sustainable in the long term.