Quebec’s plan to impose a tax on adults who choose to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 is already being called “constitutionally vulnerable” by critics – but experts say the province is within its rights and the challenges are likely to fail.
Details of the proposed tax are thin, but Prime Minister Francois Legault said Tuesday that the penalty would be “significant.” Those with a medical exemption would be exempt from the tax.
Legal experts say that provinces have a constitutional authority to levy direct taxes to pay for health care services, and that it makes sense from a justice perspective to force those who place the greatest burden on the health care system to pay more for it. .
“They are not taking away people’s freedom, they are just demanding that people pay a price if they pose a risk,” said David Duff, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law.
“If the health service was financed through private insurance, which is priced based on risk, one would expect to see higher premiums for the unvaccinated. This is a demonstrable risk. “
The tax is proposed as Quebec faces an unprecedented strain on its healthcare system due to the highly transferable Omicron variant, which sends more people to the hospital than at any other time during the pandemic.
More than 2,700 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, including 255 patients on intensive care. A further 62 deaths were also reported on Tuesday alone.
Legault noted that half of those in intensive care are unvaccinated – although this group makes up 10 percent of the adult population.
Duff says that while the prospect of taxing people for choosing not to get the vaccine may be unprecedented, the tax system has long been used to encourage people’s behavior through credits or relief.
“We get a tax cut on investing in our pension, why? Because (the government) wants to encourage it,” he said. “You give to charity, you get something back. This is similar.
“Will it affect people’s behavior? It remains to be seen. “
Quebec introduces health tax for unvaccinated
While the tax is unprecedented in Canada, similar measures have been introduced by other countries. Austria announced this in December that vaccine holdouts over the age of 13 must pay up to 3,600 euros ($ 5,139 Canadian) in fines every three months. From this month, Greece will fine residents aged 60 and over who refuse the vaccine 100 euros (CA $ 142) per month. And in Italy, residents 50 years and older is now required to be vaccinated or can be fined up to 1,600 euros (CA $ 2,287).
It is still unknown whether such policies will speed up vaccinations in these countries. But Devon Greyson, an assistant professor at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, says the impact may not be as great as Quebec officials hope.
They point to studies conducted in BC which existed, while most people supported policies that improved vaccine access and information, support fell slightly for incentives such as cash payments to get the shot – and plummeted when respondents were asked to penalize holdouts.
“It is reasonable to believe that this could result in a short-term increase in vaccinations, but I think the questions are more about the long-term effects and simply the ethics of moving forward with something like this,” they said.
“I think it’s interesting that this comes after Quebec backed the vaccine mandate for healthcare professionals, which would reasonably be a greater source of infection than the general population.”
Greyson says it will be important for the Quebec government to ensure that vaccinations are available to all sections of the population – including low-income and racialized residents – before punishing the unvaccinated.
It is also a major concern for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which issued a statement Tuesday night predicting that the “divisive measure … will end up punishing and alienating those who may be most in need of public health support and services.”
“We do not fine people who make poor diet and exercise choices, those who choose higher risk occupations or recreational activities,” said Attorney General Cara Zwibel. “Some essential services – such as basic health care for the sick – go beyond such individual choices.”
In an interview, Zwibel said the tax may also violate the protection of individuals’ bodily autonomy included in the Canadian and Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“You have to ask, is that justified?” she said. “The burden is on the government to prove that they have an urgent and significant goal that (they) are trying to achieve, and that this is a proportionate response to that. And the government has not said what the goal is here.”
Legault did not explicitly say his goal with the tax was to increase vaccinations, but his government has repeatedly stressed the importance of inoculations to ease the pandemic and reduce the strain on the health system.
COVID-19: Constitutional expert weighs Quebec health tax
Experts in constitutional law also say the proposed tax would not restrict people’s access to health care in the way that the collection of unvaccinated patients for benefits would, which would remove the threshold set by the Canada Health Act.
Stephane Beaulac, professor of constitutional law at the University of Montreal, told Global News that any legal challenge to the tax would likely be based on arguments about discrimination that would be difficult to succeed.
“The problem is that under the Canadian Charter or the Quebec Charter … there are specific reasons for discrimination that are prohibited,” he said. “And the last time I checked, there is nothing that specifically deals with one’s vaccination status.
“In other words, choosing not to be vaccinated is, under Canadian and Quebec law, something that is within the scope of freedom and equal freedom. But that does not mean that if there is a measure that goes against that choice, , one has taken for oneself, it will constitute discrimination. ”
Alberta and British Columbia said Tuesday they would not follow Quebec’s lead and impose a financial penalty on unvaccinated people.
Duff says these provinces and others will still see how the proposed tax plays out in Quebec – and whether it makes any difference in the fight against the pandemic.
“Whether others will follow, we will have to see,” he said. “But I doubt it will move fast.”
– with files from Global Montreal and Canadian Press
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