Today in the legislature I was up during Question Period. I used this opportunity to question government on the possibility of empowering the Select Standing Committee on Health to examine innovative, progressive ways of revising how MSP premiums are charged in British Columbia?
As you will see from the exchange below, I was pleasantly surprised by the answer that I received. My response to the Minister’s use of a quote from Tommy Douglas is that Quebec and Ontario bring Health Care Premiums into their progressive income tax system as a line item that shows people what they are paying.
A. Weaver: In early January the good health committee at the Monterey seniors’ centre invited me to a conversation on health care. Collectively, these seniors were profoundly concerned about the impact that our regressive approach of charging flat-rate MSP premiums was having on their ability to make ends meet. And this is in the rather affluent riding of Oak Bay–Gordon Head.
Since raising this issue last month, I have heard from thousands of British Columbians who agree with me that it’s time to replace MSP premiums with a fair and equitable option. Fortunately, just yesterday the Government House Leader activated the Select Standing Committee on Health, a committee that could be empowered to examine this issue.
My question to the Minister of Finance is this: will he empower the Select Standing Committee on Health to examine innovative, progressive ways of revising how MSP premiums are charged in British Columbia?
Hon. M. de Jong: Thanks to the member for the question. There will, through the estimates process, be an opportunity to discuss the question of the amount we collect and some of the relief that exists for almost a million British Columbians from paying full premiums. The member’s question is more specific, and that is whether or not this is a legitimate or appropriate topic for discussion by the committee.
I took the liberty of quickly checking the terms of reference. I think the power exists now. I think the committee, charged as it is to examine the projected impact of the provincial health care system on demographic trends to the year 2036 on a sustainable health care system for British Columbians…. Similarly, the motion that was before the House just a few days ago asked the committee to “outline potential alternative strategies to mitigate the impact of the significant cost drivers” identified in the original report and “consider health capital funding options.”
I think that’s probably sufficiently broad for members of the committee, and those that they might invite in, to have the kind of conversation that the member is alluding to, and it will be interesting to see what results from that conversation.
A. Weaver: I must admit I was not expecting that answer. I am pleasantly surprised, and I’m thrilled that the committee will, I hope, seek and explore means and ways of funding the MSP premium more progressively.
The reason why I’m asking this is that the time is right. The Maximus contract was renewed in 2013. I recognize there was a five-year renewable clause in it. Now is the time to work with Maximus to find new ways of not only saving government money — because this is about efficiency as much as it is about delivering services to people who can afford it, with means and ways that allow them to have these services affordably — but it’s about making it fair. It’s about bringing the revenue generation into the income tax system.
So my question to the minister is this. Will the minister consider, as every other province in the country does, bringing in our funding to MSP premiums through the income tax system, whether it be as a line item or as part of general revenues, to avoid the unnecessary bureaucracy associated with chasing after people who have recently lost their jobs and are being charged premiums based on last year’s income tax rate, chasing people who didn’t know they actually had to pay premiums because they are living abroad and so on? Will the minister consider this approach of using our income tax system for actually raising these premiums?
Hon. M. de Jong: Two things come to mind. I don’t want to prejudge or presuppose what the committee might present in terms of thoughts or recommendations on this. I confess to a certain bias, and that runs counter to the suggestion that the member has offered about eliminating a very specific charge, tax levy, in favour of general taxation provisions.
If the committee is going to have the conversation…. I ran across this in anticipation of some of the conversations, and I wonder if I can share it with the House. It’s from a former Member of Parliament from B.C., an NDP Member of Parliament, who said this:
“I want to say that I think there is value in having every family and every individual make some individual contribution. I think it has psychological value. I think it keeps the public aware of the cost and gives the people a sense of personal responsibility.
I would say to members of this House that even if we could finance the plan without a per capita tax, I personally would strongly advise against it. I would like it to be a nominal tax, but I think there is psychological value in people paying something for their cards.“
That wasn’t just any Member of Parliament. Before he was a Member of Parliament he was the Premier of Saskatchewan. That was Tommy Douglas in 1961, addressing a special session that created.
I hope the committee will be mindful of all of these ideas as it considers these matters.
Following Question Period, we issued a media release on the exchange. It is reproduced below.
Media Statement: February 26, 2015
Health Committee Empowered to Examine MSP Premium Reform
For Immediate Release
Victoria B.C. – Today, in response to a question from Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head and Deputy Leader of the B.C. Green Party, the Government House Leader and Minister of Finance agreed that the Select Standing Committee on Health would have the power to examine progressive ways of financing the Medical Services Plan and report on its findings.
“There are clear, progressive alternatives to MSP premiums that would be efficient, cost effective and affordable,” said Andrew Weaver. “I was pleasantly surprised that the Minister agreed that part of the Committees mandate could be to examine these alternatives.”
Currently, British Columbia is the only province in Canada charging a separate, flat-rate fee for medical premiums. The MSP rate is rising under the 2015 Budget by 4% – from $72 to $75 per month for individuals and from $130.50 to $136 for families. The same fee applies to anyone, whether they earn $30,000 or $3,000,000 in a year.
In contrast, both Ontario and Quebec made medical premiums a line item in their personal income tax return. By doing so, they maintained an essential revenue source for health care while reducing the burden on low and fixed income individuals.
MSP premiums are forecast to bring in nearly $2.3 billion in the 2014/15 fiscal year approaching the amount of revenue that is accrued from corporate income taxes. Reforming how this revenue is collected by, for instance, making MSP a line-item in the annual personal income tax return, would turn this regressive tax into one that is fairly applied based on income, while saving costs associated with administration and non-payment collection.
“I understand that the government has concerns about how changes to this tax would affect their financial objectives,” said Andrew Weaver. “Empowering one of our standing committees allows these objectives to be preserved, while also exploring how MSP Premiums can be made to be more affordable for British Columbians. I look forward to presenting practical alternatives to this committee and working with them to bring reform to the way MSP Premiums are charged in our Province.”