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Concerns about privacy and possible trade challenges make the Ontario government’s proposals for restructuring lab services in eastern Ontario a dangerous idea, according to a legal opinion obtained by CUPE, the union representing many of the front-line workers in lab services throughout the health care system.

The proposed restructuring will be bad for communities as well as workers, says Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE).

Public control of and access to medical lab services will be weakened with further commercialization,” says Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE).  “Privacy and trade concerns will be greatly increased if the province goes ahead with its plans to restructure public lab services into a corporate model, then all but merge the new corporation with Gamma Dynacare, which is a subsidiary of US-based Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp).”

The legal opinion, written by Steven Shrybman of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, casts doubt on whether the Ontario government has fully considered the implications for privacy and for maintaining the public character of lab services, given potential problems with the US PATRIOT ACT and the investor rights provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The Champlain Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) is planning to restructure lab services at local hospitals and push the Eastern Ontario Regional Laboratory Association (OERLA) into a partnership with US-owned Gamma Dynacare.

The confidentiality of patient health records could well be compromised,” Shrybman says.  “Under the PATRIOT ACT, the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can issue secret orders compelling the production of records in the control of LabCorp, including those gathered by its Canadian subsidiaries.  Such orders cannot be disclosed, including to those whose confidential health records are revealed to US officials.”

While many details of the restructuring plans for the Eastern Ontario Regional Laboratory Association (EORLA) have yet to be determined or announced, the Association’s board has endorsed a corporatized delivery model that involves a greater role for the major private sector laboratory service company operating in this sector, Gamma-Dynacare.

Shrybman notes that LabCorp could invoke NAFTA dispute procedures to claim damages if Ontario seeks to contract-in privatized laboratory services, or otherwise attempts to regulate these services in a manner the Company opposes

Key safeguards that currently insulate Canadian health care policy and law from international trade challenges and investor claims may be negated,” warns Shrybman.  “This would in turn undermine the authority of Ontario governments to regulate or restrict foreign investment in this health care sector, including for the purposes of sustaining Canada’s medicare system.”

OCHU President Michael Hurley says the Dalton McGuinty government is restructuring the public health care system through its “Local Health Integration Networks”, or LHINs, in order to increase commercialization and privatization.

The Liberal government is hiding behind the LHINs while it undertakes a massive restructuring of public hospital services,” says Hurley.  “The first major service to be affected is laboratory services and the direction is clear – more commercialization, less public control, more vulnerability to trade challenges and less protection for our health records.  Let’s keep lab services under public control and stop this restructuring.”