The Alberta government says a Calgary medical clinic charging its patients fees for faster access to a physician is an outlier and it will take action against any clinic that follows suit.

Alberta Health spokesman Scott Johnston said there are 13 clinics in the province that charge membership fees for medical services, but they don’t offer faster access for services paid for by taxpayers.

Such non-insured services could include everything from chiropractic work to nutrition counselling.

“All evaluations done to date have confirmed that these (13) clinics are operating in compliance with the (Canada Health Act),” Johnston said in a statement Wednesday.

“Many of these clinics have operated in Alberta for decades, including while the (current Opposition) NDP were in government, and do not offer preferential access for insured services.”

Johnston said the investigation continues into the Marda Loop Medical Clinic and stressed similar action will be taken against other clinics that seek to implement such a membership-fee plan.

The clinic has told its patients that, starting Tuesday, it will still see patients for free one day a week. The other four days will be dedicated to patients who pay annual membership fees such as $2,200 for an individual and $4,800 for a family.

For that money, the clinic promises faster access to the clinic physician, along with other perks and services, including extended sessions, at-home blood tests and discounts on related services such as physiotherapy.

Dr. Sally Talbot-Jones, the clinic’s owner and physician, has declined interview requests and on Wednesday morning said the clinic will now speak through a communications firm.

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One Marda Loop patient leaving the clinic Wednesday morning spoke about the situation, but asked to remain anonymous over concern of losing her doctor.

The patient said she understands if doctors need to find ways to pay the bills amid rising overhead costs, but her medical needs are complex and won’t be met if she has to rely on a walk-in clinic.

"(Medicare) is not free. We pay for it with our tax dollars, so I've already paid once,” she said.

She said she wants to see what the investigation turns up before deciding whether to pay the membership fee.

“I'd like to know what the final word is before I take $5,000 of my hard-earned dollars,” she said.

“Either way, I still want to stay as her patient because she is a good doctor.

“I doubt I could even find anyone (else), anyway.”

The new program was communicated to Marda Loop patients via a recent email. It is not mentioned on the clinic’s website and the provincial regulator, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, said this week it was not asked to review the clinic’s new fee model before implementation.

In the email to patients, Talbot-Jones characterized the move as “a transformative health-care initiative” to provide better service while reducing stress, lost time and productivity due to extended waits to see a physician.

“You and your family should not have to sacrifice your time or finances due to inadequate access to health care,” wrote Talbot-Jones.

On Tuesday, Health Canada advised Premier Danielle Smith’s United Conservative government that the Marda Loop membership plan violates the Canada Health Act provision that medically insured services will be provided on a level playing field to all.

The agency says Alberta has multiple options to fix the situation, such as through policy or legislation, but failure to do so risks a reduction in federal health transfer payments.

Smith made a manifesto promise in the recent election that Albertans will not pay to see a family doctor. In a statement Tuesday, she said her government is investigating and will take action against Marda Loop if it confirms a breach of medicare rules.

Johnston said the investigation will be updated as findings emerge.

The Opposition NDP is calling on the province to pass legislation to prevent pay plans like the Marda Loop membership fee.

The NDP, along with the advocacy organization Friends of Medicare, says the Marda Loop plan threatens a disastrous domino effect for patients who cannot pay but still need primary care, not to mention referrals for tests and more complex procedures.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2023.

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