Vaccine tax proposal raises equity concerns

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

People who work with poor and marginalized communities in the Estrie region are concerned that the controversial “health tax” proposed by Premier François Legault last week would create unnecessary friction between the health system and the people who need its services most.

Legault proposed the measure in a press conference last week, stating that his government plans to subject the unvaccinated to a “significant” additional tax. He later said the government planned to table a bill on the measure in February.

According to the Institut national de la santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), about 10.4 per cent of Quebecers 12 and older have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. However, they are overrepresented in COVID hospital admissions (29 per cent) and intensive care admissions (43 per cent).

Rosalie Dupont is co-ordinator of the Table d’action contre l’appauvrissement de l’Estrie, an umbrella group of poverty reduction organizations. She believes more can and should be done to make it easier for people to get the shots, instead of subjecting them to a financial penalty.

“We see a lot of [unvaccinated people] who are isolated, who have difficulties with mental health or who have mobility issues…and these are the people this measure is going to impact,” she says. “A lot of people don’t necessarily have the skills needed to find information or make a reservation online. Not everyone is aware that you can be vaccinated even if you don’t have a health card, or…that you can make a reservation over the phone.”

She adds that the health care system is not always a welcoming environment for people who are homeless, LGBTQ+ or otherwise marginalized. “Our health system has already let those people fall through the cracks, and now we’re talking about imposing a tax that will push them further away,” she said, expressing concerns that the measure could lead to some patients avoiding hospitals.

“Some elderly people or people with intellectual disabilities have lost access to some social services because of the pandemic,” she says. “That limits their ability to get information and get vaccinated. Managing daily life is already a challenge without keeping track of constantly changing measures.”

“Not everyone has a car, and not everyone can get time off work,” says Quebec Solidaire MNA for Sherbrooke Christine Labrie, whose party opposes the measure. “It would be a mistake to think unvaccinated people are all conspiracy theorists.” Some, she suggests, lack the language skills, technical skills or organization needed to make a reservation.

Dupont says community groups have been doing their best to make vaccination easy for vulnerable people, but more could be done, by making sure vaccination clinics are accessible by mass transit and ensuring low-wage workers can take time off to get vaccinated and recover from side effects.

Dr. Francis Livernoche is a Sherbrooke-based pediatrician and member of the doctors’ collective Médecins québécois pour le régime public, which advocates for a more accessible public health system. He’s worried the measure will be counterproductive for public health.

“My first reaction when I heard about this [proposed] tax was surprise, because it came out of nowhere,” he says. “My second reaction was, ‘This won’t work.’”

“In my pediatric practice, almost one out of every two parents is unvaccinated, and most aren’t conspiracy theorists,” he says. “Most say, ‘I’m not against vaccines, but I feel that this vaccine is experimental…and above all, I don’t want it to be forced on me.’ Now, these people will feel even more targeted, more convinced that everyone’s against them. That’s not healthy.” He thinks taking the time to address the concerns of vaccine-hesitant people, and opening public vaccine clinics in neighbourhood schools, may be more effective means to get shots into arms. “Outreach is always cheaper than a hospital bed,” he adds.

Dr. Alain Poirier, director of public health for the Estrie region, also expressed reservations about the proposal. “Obviously, we’re looking at every possible measure to convince people to get vaccinated, but telling them ‘you’re going to pay more’ – I’m not sure that’s the way to do it,” he told La Tribune over the weekend.

If you or someone you know are unable to reserve a vaccination appointment online, you can call 1 877 644‑4545 (toll free) to make a reservation over the phone.

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