From time to time, conservatives and right wing talking heads condemn the Canadian health care system as inadequate and inefficient. According to them, there are long waits for doctors, and the system is so bad that American hospitals on the border are filled with Canadians seeking health care. They back this up with the “testimony” of a woman who came here for elective surgery several years ago. Over time, she has multiplied into hundreds seeking cancer treatments and life-saving surgeries.
My husband’s parents came from Canada. He literally has more relatives in Canada than we can count. While working on his genealogy, I became friends with one of his cousins, and this story is about her son and a friend of my niece’s.
Almost simultaneously, the two young men, both 23, were diagnosed with testicular cancer. Stephen, in Canada, was employed and living on his own. Erik in America, was attending college in Colorado. His parents live in Maine and he was, amazingly, still on their health insurance because his Dad worked for a really good employer.
Stephen went for a physical because he was in pain. Two days later, he had the diagnosis. He called his parents and said he had been scheduled for the surgery the next week. As his mother, Lisa, put it, the first thing they did before the doctors removed the cancer was remove and freeze his “baby jelly” and put it in storage, at the country’s expense, for the full term of Stephen’s life. Two days later, Stephen came home to his parents to recuperate. If he had been married, or living with someone, he would have returned to his own apartment. The time with his parents was a precaution. Within a month, he was back at work. There were no bills to pay. He has a clean bill of health and has a yearly check-up. Stephen trains horses for a living, for circuses and other entertainment venues, and just for the record, he’s one incredibly gorgeous young man. His illness has not interfered with his career or any aspect of his life.
Erik received his diagnosis and phoned home. His parents were sure that he was going to get the best care possible because they had really good health insurance and access to the medical facilities of the largest city in Colorado. Then, they discovered that their insurance was no good in Colorado. Erik had to make a choice – quit a school he had fought hard to get into, in an advanced degree program that could not guarantee his place if he took a leave of absence or fight for a hospital in Colorado to accept his parents’ insurance. After a couple of months of haggling, he gave up and went back to Maine. It was almost a fatal decision. There was no simple surgery to remove a small tumor. There was surgery and radiation and a year of treatment and recovery, and a five year window of constant testing to make sure it didn’t return. And then, there were the bills, the co-pays and deductibles that came out of his parents’ pockets, thousands of dollars of bills. Like Stephen, Erik was an incredibly gorgeous young man, until his illness and treatment caused him to lose weight, grow gaunt and pale and haggard. Erik has returned to Boulder, but he had to start over with the application process for his school, start over with waiting for a place. He is working, but not at what he loves and wanted to do.
Yes, Canada has a triage system for health care. If you want a nose job, you have to wait. But if you have cancer, you will be treated and treated rapidly. Your care will not depend on the type of insurance you have or if you have insurance. If you need a transplant, or you child needs a transplant, you don’t have to set up jars in stores in your town to raise money for the downpayment on your life. You will receive care.
Lisa has told me that the worst thing about health care in Canada is the way people abuse it. They go to the doctor for a cold. That is why some people complain about waiting for care. In the United States, we have a similar problem with a twist. Doctors get overwhelmed with patients wanting appointments every time some new drug is advertised on television, even if they don’t suffer from exactly the condition the drug is designed to treat. And we have fewer doctors per capita than Canada has. We also have a major problem with getting doctors who will accept Medicare and Medicaid patients.
There are so many things wrong with our health care system, it really does take whole books to explain them. This isn’t the forum for that. What I wanted to explain is how lies are being told about Canadian health care. The Canadian system prioritizes care based on the medical needs of patients, not on their ability to pay for care. That is the difference. And if the right wing wants to call that “rationing,” well, let them. It is the same kind of “rationing” one sees in battlefield hospitals – the greater the need, the faster the care. And it is done at half the cost per citizen that the American system costs.
People love to brag that we have the best health care in the world, but health care is not measured by how many of the latest imaging machine a nation has or how many drugs we rely on. It is not measured in how our hospitals are in constant states of construction, mushrooming until you need a damned map to find the x-ray department and there are pavilions with more shops and restaurants than most small towns. It is measured in things like infant mortality, life expectancy, preventative care, access to affordable care, facilities that match need, so many things….and the United States of America ranks 37th in the world, after countries like Costa Rico. And we rank that low, while ranking most expensive in the world, because we have allowed a system to develop where profit factors into our health care.
Our Declaration of Independence says that we are all entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our Constitution promises to “promote the general welfare.” Neither of them said that life or the general welfare could only be had if someone made a profit off them.