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Canadian Socialized Medicine: an Example of How Not to Solve Health Care Problems

Copyright 2004 by David W. Neuendorf

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During this election season, we again hear a lot of demands that government do something about the high cost of health care, including insurance. There are many ideas out there, but the most persistent is that we ought to emulate Canada's national health care system. The Clinton administration proposed this as one of its top priorities; John Kerry's plan is very similar.

In Canada, all medical care must be provided by public institutions. Funding for the clinics and hospitals comes mostly from the national government, but the provinces are in charge of providing health care services. Private health care providers are completely outlawed. Since doctors are employed by the state, no one in Canada has to pay for care.

On the surface that does sound tempting. Americans who are self-employed or work for small companies are lucky to find health insurance coverage for $1,000 per month, even without serious pre-existing conditions. Employees of larger companies are paying ever greater shares of their health benefits as well. And of course there are many who must simply gamble that they will stay healthy because they can't afford health insurance premiums. Getting health care coverage while paying zero dollars to an insurance company sounds too good to be true.

Unfortunately, what sounds too good to be true usually isn't true. First, of course, the costs would be covered by someone: you and everyone else who pays taxes. I might not have to pay over $1,000 per month any longer, but my neighbors who work for big companies in Cincinnati would be forced to pay even more than they do now to cover the added cost of caring for my family. No commodity is free, least of all the services of highly trained doctors, nurses and technicians, using state of the art medical equipment. To make it worse, forcing you to pay for part of my medical bills is simply immoral.

There is an even darker side to emulating the Canadian system. Any product or service that people regard as free or, worse yet, already paid for by themselves, they don't regard as something to be used only when necessary. The demand for such services increases, bringing about shortages. Guess what has been happening in Canada?

According to a September 14, 2004 Reuters report, the shortage of health care services has reached crisis proportions in Canada. Paul Martin, the Canadian Prime Minister, is quoted as saying, "Few would dispute the prevailing reality of our time: people in this country are increasingly anxious about their ability to get in to see the right health professional at the right time."

What Martin is talking about is the long wait to see a doctor, and even longer wait to get diagnostic or surgical procedures done. The Fraser Institute in Canada reports that there is now a wait of over three weeks for someone with chest pain to see a cardiologist. If bypass surgery is urgently needed, add another two weeks. "Elective" bypass surgery (as if there were such a thing!) adds almost eleven weeks. Try never to have chest pains in British Columbia, where people are waiting six months to schedule bypass surgery. The Canadian health care system is killing patients who canít get treatment in time.

The delays for non-life threatening problems are much longer. According to the Reuters article, "Patients in Ontario who require major knee surgery can wait six months to see a specialist and then another 18 months for surgery."

The fact that Canadian health care is "free" doesn't mean that everyone can get a family doctor. Since the medical profession is limited to government employment, naturally there are fewer people making that career choice. Reuters reports that 15% of Canadians donít have a family doctor. As a consequence, Canadian emergency rooms are even more flooded with people seeking routine medical care than in our US hospitals.

What do desperate Canadians do? More and more now travel across the border to get treatment in American hospitals, and are glad to pay for the privilege. They get in and out in a fraction of the time, and know that they are getting the best care available from the best doctors, using the best diagnostic and surgical technology.

The high cost of health care, including insurance, is indeed a problem in America. Government's involvement in the solution should begin with ensuring that government itself is adding as little as possible to that cost, through excessive regulation and the like. But whatever else we do, any discussion about health care options in America should start with the understanding that we don't want anything remotely similar to Canada's system. Wouldn't it be something if we found ourselves traveling south to Mexico for our critical surgeries?