This article appeared in the Bangkok Post on March 20th, 2005. It is available for viewing in PDF format in its original layout by clicking here. For your convenience, we include a text version below.
Canadian health care needs major surgery, Beth Duff-Brown reports from Toronto.
A letter from the Moncton Hospital to a New Brunswick heart patient in need of an electrocardiogram said the appointment would be in three months. It added: "If the person named on this computer-generated letter is deceased, please accept our sincere apologies."
The patient wasn't dead, according to the doctor who showed the letter to the Associated Press. But there are many Canadians who claim the long wait for the test and the frigid formality of the letter are indicative of a health system badly in need of emergency care.
Americans who flock to Canada for cheap flu shots often come away impressed at the free and first-class medical care available to Canadians, rich or poor. But tell that to hospital administrators constantly having to cut staff for lack of funds, or to the mother whose teenager was advised she would have to wait up to three years for surgery to repair a torn knee ligament.
"It's like somebody's telling you that you can buy this car, and you've paid for the car, but you can't have it right now," said Jane Pelton. Rather than leave daughter Emily in pain and a knee brace, the Ottawa family opted to pay $3,300 for arthroscopic surgery at a private clinic in Vancouver, with no help from the government.
"Every day we're paying for health care, yet when we go to access it, it's just not there," Pelton said.
System is going broke
The average Canadian family pays about 48 percent of its income in taxes each year, partly to fund the health care system. Rates vary from province to province, but Ontario, the most populous, spends roughly 40 percent of every tax dollar on health care, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
The system is going broke, says the federation, which campaigns for tax reform and private enterprise in health care.
It calculates that at present rates, Ontario will be spending 85 percent of its budget on health care by 2035. "We can't afford a state monopoly on health care anymore," says Tasha Kheiriddin, Ontario director of the federation. "We have to examine private alternatives, as well."
The federal government and virtually every province acknowledge there's a crisis: a lack of physicians and nurses, state-of-the-art equipment and funding. In Ontario, more than 10,000 nurses and hospital workers are facing layoffs over the next two years unless the provincial government boosts funding, says the Ontario Hospital Association, which represents health care providers in the province.
In 1984, Parliament passed the Canada Health Act, which affirmed the federal government's commitment to provide mostly free health care to all, including the 200,000 immigrants arriving each year. The system is called Medicare (no relation to Medicare in the United States).
A country set apart
Despite the financial burden, Canadians value their Medicare as a marker of egalitarianism and independent identity that sets their country apart from the United States, where some 45 million Americans lack health insurance.
Raisa Deber, a professor of health policy at the University of Toronto, believes Canada's system is one of the world's fairest.
"Canadians are very proud of the fact that if they need care, they will get care," she said. Of the United States, she said: "I don't understand how they got to this worship of markets, to the extent that they're perfectly happy that some people don't get the health care that they need."
Canada does not have fully nationalized health care; its doctors are in private practice and send their bills to the government for reimbursement.
Deber acknowledges problems in the system, but believes most Canadians get the care they need. She said the federal government should attach more strings to its annual lump-sum allocations to the provinces so that tax dollars are better spent on preventive care and improvements in working conditions for health-care professionals.
In defense of the system
In Alberta, a conservative province where pressure for private clinics and insurance is strong, a nonprofit organization called Friends of Medicare has sprung to the system's defense. It points up the inequities in U.S. health care and calls Canada's "the most moral and the most cost-effective health care system there is in the world. Is your sick grandchild more deserving of help than your neighbor's grandchild?" It asks.
Yes, says Dr. Brian Day, if that grandchild needs urgent care and can't get it at a government-funded hospital.
Day, an English-born arthroscopic surgeon, founded Cambie Surgery Center in Vancouver, British Columbia -- another province where private surgeries are making inroads. He says he got so frustrated at the long delays to book surgeries at the public hospitals in Vancouver that he built his own private clinic. A leading advocate for reform, he testified last June before the Supreme Court in a landmark appeal against a Quebec ruling upholding limits on private care and insurance.
The World Health Organization in 2000 ranked France's health system as the best, followed by Italy, Spain, Oman and Australia. Canada came in 30th and the United States 37th.
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein is pushing what he calls "the third way" -- a fusion of Canadian Medicare and the system in France and many other nations, where residents can supplement their government-funded health care with private insurance and services.