July 26, 2009

Canadian health care hardly a Marxist threat: BY NAOMI LAKRITZ, CALGARY HERALD, JULY 24, 2009


Sheesh! To hear the extremist rhetoric floating around south of the border, you'd think Canada's public health-care system was the socialist demon incarnate, hatched directly from the fevered imaginations of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves.

Cool it, America. Your health-care system is nothing to write home about, with some 46 million people sans insurance, with your managed care and gatekeepers, your doctors wasting time filling out insurance forms, and your insurance companies dreaming up ways to avoid paying out to people who faithfully paid their premiums for years. As economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times: "There's no question that some Americans who seemingly have good insurance nonetheless die because insurers are trying to hold down their 'medical losses'--the industry term for actually having to pay for care." Then, there are the bake sales to fund some poor soul's cancer treatment, and the bankruptcies of people overwhelmed by medical bills they can never pay. America, you in your glass house down there are hardly the ones to be lobbing stones across the border.

Among the agenda-driven fear-mongers are Conservatives for Patients' Rights, led by Rick Scott, who used to head up Columbia/ Hospital Corporation of America (a firm that pleaded guilty to over-billing, after it was probed for fraud), and Patients United Now, which is funded by the right-wing Americans For Prosperity.

However, judging from a CBS News/New York Times poll done June 20, the average American, whose only agenda is his or her own health, is longingly eyeing a public system. The poll found 72 per cent (including 50 per cent of those identifying as Republican voters)want a government-backed public health-care plan established alongside the private system. Fiftynine per cent think government could keep health-care costs lower than the private sector can, and 50 per cent believe government coverage would be better than what private insurers provide.

A Harvard University study released in 2005 found that 50 per cent of the 1,458,000 personal bankruptcies in the U. S. in 2001 were due to medical bills, with an estimated two million Americans affected each year. Most of these people were caught in a terrible Catch-22, the kind Canadians do not have to contend with, thanks to our public health-care system. These American patients were off work, which meant their health insurance, paid for by their employer, was cut off.

The latest poster girl for the socialism-scaredy cat crowd is Shona Holmes, who re-mortgaged her Waterdown, Ont. home so she could spend $100,000 to get a growth near her pituitary gland treated at the Mayo Clinic. Holmes stars in an ad sponsored by Patients United Now, and she claims Canadian doctors told her a referral to a specialist would take several months. Holmes's pitch is ironically quite a nice plug for Canadian health care, because nobody up here has to remortgage their home or scrounge up $100,000 to pay for their health care. You almost feel like saying, "the defense rests" after that. Holmes also admits health care is "wonderful" in Ontario. Further, the Canadian health-care system prioritizes cases and people whose situations are dire do get in faster; such triaging is done every day with heart bypass surgery and MRIs. Since no one is privy to Holmes's health records, it's impossible to know how urgent her condition was.

The ad claims Canadian patients have long waits, and don't get care, or certain drugs and treatments, because "the government says patients aren't worth it." That's Stephen Harper's government they're talking about, and although Harper in his pre-prime ministerial incarnation advocated private health care, he ran his election campaign on a promise to preserve public health care. Harper's government is definitely not saying anything about patients not being worth it.
As former federal Health minister Ujjal Dosanjh says, "I think one of the things that we need to keep in mind is that Ms. Holmes may be an exception to the rule. We shouldn't let extreme exceptions that can happen in any system define the entire system. We, according to her, have a wonderful health-care system, and what we need to do is improve it."

Exactly. The attacks on Canada's health-care system by Americans gleefully pouncing on the things that are wrong, ignore the far greater number of things that are right.

The trouble with America's system is that the horror stories are not the "extreme exceptions." When 50 per cent of Americans who declare bankruptcy do so because they can't pay their medical bills, those are not a few extreme cases.

Both countries need to fix what's wrong in their own systems by looking at best practices elsewhere, with an eye to enhancing universal access, not compromising it. If anyone would care to blow the dust off the Romanow report which has been sitting on a shelf for quite a few years, the fixing, at least in Canada, could begin.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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