ontario healthcare

People fear Loblaws-funded app may be the future of private healthcare in Ontario

If you've ever needed a quick consultation with a medical professional or a prescription for something basic like an antibiotic, there's a chance that you may have turned to a virtual healthcare app like Maple, which connects Canadians with a physician or nurse practitioner via chat either immediately or by appointment.

Soft launched in 2016, the tool quite understandably built up a ton of steam over the pandemic when telemedicine became the go-to and doctors still happy to practice in person became scarce.

But as convenient as apps like Maple and competitors like Rocket Doctor are for some diagnoses, medical advice and scripts, there is one glaring issue that has made them part of a larger conversation in the wake of the province of Ontario's latest healthcare announcement — they charge a fee for services that are usually covered by OHIP.

Controversially, Maple charges users either per virtual visit ($69-$99, depending on the time of day) or for a monthly membership ($29.92 for a personal membership, $48.25 for a family membership or $49.99 plus tax for something called Maple+) despite the fact that the medical services it offers are usually covered by OHIP and its counterparts in other provinces.

The app states in its FAQ section that "in order for Maple's services to be covered, the province must have public coverage of virtual telemedicine visits, and criteria which aligns with our system" and that "we charge a fee for our services only when they are not covered by provincial health plans."

While many in Ontario would expect that this would mean that e-visits on Maple would be covered, the band uses a few loopholes, according to ipolitics: consults first take place via text chat instead of over phone or video, and patients can be connected with nurse practitioners or out-of-province doctors, all of which render visits ineligible for OHIP coverage.

It's something that Health Canada is apparently ringing alarm bells about, especially amid the current conversation regarding what many feel is a steady shift toward privatized healthcare in Ontario under Premier Doug Ford.

As a spokesperson from the government arm told ipolitics this week, the Canada Health Act states provincial and territorial health insurance plans must cover all medically necessary services.

The Commitment to the Future of Medicare Act in Ontario specifically also states that "no one can charge insured patients or their private insurers for a service that is insured under OHIP," and that queue jumping to access insured services is likewise prohibited — two areas people are becoming progressively more concerned about.

A few have also noted the connection between Maple and public enemy Galen Weston Jr., president of Loblaws, which is a minority stakeholder in the app and is also among those companies being investigated for jacking up grocery prices to profit off of inflation.

While Maple and similar resources are technically operating within the law, critics worry their existence and popularity indicate our publicly-funded healthcare system may be heading in a concerning direction where cash can get you better, faster care, which may come at the expense of the quality of free care if practitioners follow the money.

Along with The Ford government's plan to use privately-run clinics for more procedures — procedures in which patients may be able to pay for upgrades to care, which many point out we have always been able to do in some ways  — the premier recently changed the funding structure for telemedicine consultations,.

Under new guidelines, physicians can bill OHIP nearly as much for phone or video appointments, leading many to cease these services and prompting some patients who are willing to pay for the convenience to turn to apps like Maple.

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