In Defence of Canadian Healthcare

Canada’s health-care system has come in for a drubbing in the battle over U.S. health-care reform. Critics, many of them Canadian, have pointed out its flaws and warned Americans against adopting a similar system. NDP leader Jack Layton countered the criticism, in an article originally carried in The Huffington Post:

Last week a new study showed that 92% of Canadians would recommend their doctor to friends and family. Two-thirds have had their doctor for over five years and 85% of Canadians have a regular doctor.

Does that sound like the health care system depicted in the right-wing Republican-backed smear campaign against Canada?

No care for life-threatening conditions, no choice, exorbitant costs, bureaucrat control, poor outcomes — these are the bogeymen of the right-wing smear campaign. And like all bogeymen, once you look under the bed they don’t exist.

Our system does have flaws. We need better prescription drug coverage, better remote access to care and better practices in hospitals and clinics. No honest advocate for our health care system would dismiss these things. But Canadian health care works — and works well.

If you face a medical emergency — you get the help you need. An admitting nurse doesn’t check your credit card — she checks your pulse. Across Canada innovative best practices in hospitals and clinics are cutting wait times for emergency treatment and elective surgery alike.

Costs are under control in Canada. We spend similar amounts on public care – around 7% of GDP. For that price, Canada covers everyone, the U.S. just one third of the population. In case you’re worried Canada wastes money on bureaucracy, know that just 2.4% of our total costs go to administration compared to 7% of what your government spends. In the end, Canadian care costs $2,500 less per capita – and covers everyone.

Our outcomes are excellent too: infant mortality is lower, people live longer and we are less at risk of cardiovascular disease than Americans.

Does all this mean that the United States should adopt Canada’s health care system?

No. America can no more adopt our health care system than we can swap hockey for baseball as our national pastime. A good health care system reflects a country’s values, and each country’s values are different.

But a system with 47 million uninsured, coverage denied due to pre-existing conditions and people thrown off plans when they become ill? That doesn’t reflect American values.

Fixing the health care system won’t be easy — from Truman to Nixon to Clinton presidents have tried and failed. But it wasn’t easy in Canada either.

Sixty years ago Canadians families shouldered their own medical bills. Those with the money got the care they needed, but those without struggled — they sold their farms, mortgaged their homes, or went without care, suffered, and even died.

Tommy Douglas, one of my predecessors as leader of the New Democrats, believed everyone should get the health care they needed, regardless of income. So in 1947 Tommy and his supporters launched a decades-long battle for Canadian Medicare.