Escaping Canadian health care

NationalPost.com – Opinion – Escaping Canadian health care
Published: October 01, 2009.   The Wall Street Journal,  National Post

The following editorial appeared in Wednesday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal.

A bipartisan majority of the U. S. Senate Finance Committee defeated the health-care “public option” yesterday, though in our view Max Baucus’s bill will still reach the same destination, albeit more slowly. With that in mind, we offer as today’s commentary a cautionary tale from the land of the original public option, Canada. Here are the opening paragraphs of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times dispatch:

“Vancouver, Canada: When the pain in Christina Woodkey’s legs became so severe that she could no longer hike or cross-country ski, she went to her local health clinic. The Calgary, Canada, resident was told she’d need to see a hip specialist. Because the problem was not life-threatening, however, she’d have to wait about a year.

So wait she did.

In January, the hip doctor told her that a narrowing of the spine was compressing her nerves and causing the pain. She needed a back specialist. The appointment was set for Sept. 30. ‘When I was given that date, I asked when could I expect to have surgery,’ said Woodkey, 72. ‘They said it would be a year and a half after I had seen this doctor.’

So this month, she drove across the border into Montana and got the $50,000 surgery done in two days. ‘I don’t have insurance. We’re not allowed to have private health insurance in Canada,’ Woodkey said. ‘It’s not going to be easy to come up with the money. But I’m happy to say the pain is almost all gone.’

Whereas U. S. health care is predominantly a private system paid for by private insurers, things in Canada tend toward the other end of the spectrum: A universal, government-funded health system is only beginning to flirt with private-sector medicine.

Hoping to capitalize on patients who might otherwise go to the U. S. for speedier care, a network of technically illegal private clinics and surgical centres has sprung up in British Columbia, echoing a trend in Quebec. In October, the courts will be asked to decide whether the budding system should be sanctioned. More than 70 private health providers in British Columbia now schedule simple surgeries and tests such as MRIs with waits as short as a week or two, compared with the months it takes for a public surgical suite to become available for nonessential operations.

‘What we have in Canada is access to a government, state-mandated wait list,’ said Brian Day, a former Canadian Medical Assn. director who runs a private surgical centre in Vancouver. ‘You cannot force a citizen in a free and democratic society to simply wait for health care, and outlaw their ability to extricate themselves from a wait list.’ “

In other words, while Congress debates whether to set U. S. medicine on the Canadian path, Canadians are desperately seeking their own private option. At least Ms. Woodkey had the safety valve of Montana and private American medicine. Once Congress passes a form of Medicare for all, with its inevitable government price controls and limits on care, Americans might not be so lucky.

Let’s hope that by then Canada has expanded its own private option, so Americans will one day be able to visit Alberta for faster, better care. Unless Congress bars that too.

©2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved

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