Quebec wants to tax people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. Can the province do this?

Quebec’s plan to impose a tax on adults who choose to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 has already been called “constitutionally vulnerable” by critics – but experts say the province is well within its rights and that challenges may fail.

Details on the proposed tax are slim, but Prime Minister François Legault said on Tuesday the penalty would be “significant.” People with a medical exemption would be exempt from the tax.

Legal experts say provinces have the constitutional power to levy direct taxes in order to pay for services like health care, and that it makes sense from an equity standpoint to compel those who weigh the most. on the health system to pay more for it.

“They don’t take away people’s freedom, they just demand that people pay a price if they pose a risk,” said David Duff, professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of Colombia. -British.

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“If the health care system were funded by private insurance, which is priced based on risk, one would expect to see higher premiums for the unvaccinated. It is a demonstrable risk.

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Quebec will impose a tax on people not vaccinated against COVID-19

The tax is proposed as Quebec faces unprecedented pressure on its health system due to the highly transmissible variant Omicron, which sends more people to hospital than at any other time during the pandemic.

More than 2,700 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday, including 255 intensive care patients. 62 other deaths were also reported on Tuesday alone.

Legault noted that half of people in intensive care are not vaccinated – even though this group comprises 10 percent of the adult population.

Duff says that while the prospect of taxing people for choosing not to get vaccinated may be unprecedented, the tax system has long been used to induce people to behave through credits or relief.

“We get tax relief to invest in our retirement, why? Because (the government) wants to encourage this, ”he said. “You give to charity, you get something in return. This is similar to that.

“Will it influence people’s behavior? That remains to be seen. “

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Quebec will introduce a health tax for the unvaccinated

Quebec will introduce a health tax for the unvaccinated

Although the tax is unprecedented in Canada, similar measures have been introduced by other countries. Austria announced in December that vaccine holders over the age of 13 will have to pay fines of up to 3,600 euros (C $ 5,139) every three months. As of this month, Greece will issue a fine of 100 euros (CA $ 142) per month to residents aged 60 and over who refuse the vaccine. And in Italy, residents 50 and over must now be vaccinated or face fines of up to 1,600 euros (CA $ 2,287).

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The Ordre des médecins du Québec calls for more severe measures against the unvaccinated

It remains to be seen whether such policies will increase immunizations in these countries. But Devon Greyson, assistant professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, says the impact may not be as great as Quebec officials are hoping.

They cite studies from British Columbia which found that while most people supported policies that improve access to and information about vaccines, this support declined slightly for incentives such as cash payments to be made. get vaccinated – and dropped when respondents were asked about the punishment of holdouts.

“It’s reasonable to think that this may lead to a short-term increase in vaccinations, but I think the questions are more about the long-term effects and just the ethics of going ahead with something like that. “, they declared.

“I think it’s interesting that this comes after Quebec withdrew the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, who would reasonably be a greater source of infection than the general population.”

Greyson says it will be important for the Quebec government to ensure vaccines are accessible to all segments of the population – including low-income and racialized residents – before it starts penalizing the unvaccinated.

It is also one of the main concerns of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which released a statement Tuesday evening that the “divisive measure … will end up punishing and alienating those who may be most in need of support and support. public health services “.

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“We do not impose fines on people who make poor choices in diet and exercise, those who choose high-risk occupations or recreational activities,” said Acting General Counsel Cara Zwibel . “Some essential services – such as basic health care for sick people – transcend these individual choices. “

In an interview, Zwibel said the tax could also violate protections for the bodily autonomy of individuals included in the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms.

“You have to ask, is that justified? ” she said. “The onus is on the government to prove that it has a pressing and substantial objective that it is trying to achieve and that it is a proportional response to it. And the government has not said what the goal is here.

Legault did not explicitly say that his goal with the tax was to increase vaccinations, but his government has repeatedly stressed the importance of vaccinations in alleviating the pandemic and reducing pressure on the health system.

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COVID-19: a constitutional expert speaks out on the Quebec health tax

COVID-19: a constitutional expert speaks out on the Quebec health tax

Constitutional law experts also argue that the proposed tax would not limit people’s access to health care in the same way as charging for services to unvaccinated patients, thus crossing the threshold set by the Canada Law. health.

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Stéphane Beaulac, professor of constitutional law at the University of Montreal, told Global News that any legal challenge against the tax would likely be based on arguments of discrimination, which would be difficult to succeed.

“The problem is that under the Canadian Charter or the Quebec Charter… there are specific grounds of discrimination that are prohibited,” he said. “And the last time I checked, there is nothing specifically about a person’s immunization status.

“In other words, choosing not to be vaccinated is, according to Canadian and Quebec laws, something that falls within the scope of freedom, of one’s freedom. But that does not mean that if there is a measure which goes against the choice which one made for oneself, that would constitute discrimination.

Alberta and British Columbia said on Tuesday they would not follow Quebec’s lead and introduce a financial penalty for those not vaccinated.

Duff says those provinces and others will always monitor how the proposed tax works in Quebec – and whether it makes a difference in fighting the pandemic.

“If others follow, we’ll see,” he said. “But I doubt it will move quickly.”

– with files from Global Montreal and the Canadian Press

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