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The Truth About Canadian Health Care

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Americans are debating the future of their nation’s health care and as they do so, they keep looking beyond their borders to the systems in place in other countries. And, very often, their attention rests on Canada. More often than not, at least today, it is conservatives focusing on Canada, telling stories of woe, describing the utter breakdown of health care. You hear of people who have been forced to mortgage their homes and travel to the United States in order to receive basic care; you hear of people forced south of the border by hospitals that have no free beds; you hear of people who are utterly unable to find even a family doctor. Believe the press and you’ll think the Canadian system is in utter disrepair.

Now I am not much of one for politics, and especially so when those politics span two nations. Neither am I an economist who can talk about how Canada’s health care system impacts the nation financially (though obviously it’s a significant burden on the taxpayer). But what I do want to say is this: the truth about Canadian Health Care is that it’s really stinkin’ good. As a nation we are hard-wired to complain and we do tend to complain about our health system as we grumble about our politicians, hockey players and donuts. But we also like to boast and when we talk to Americans, one of the things we like to boast in most is the health care system (or the beer, depending on your personality type).

And it is good (the health care, that is–I’m not qualified to comment on the beer). When I hear Glenn Beck talking about the Canadian system as if it is hand-in-hand with Cuba, well, my blood boils a little bit. Of course I have little to go on beyond personal experiences and those of friends and family. But my experience is uniformly good. If I need to see my family doctor, I can call him and get an appointment usually the same day and, if not, shortly after. If I don’t care to wait, I can go to a walk-in clinic where, depending on the day, I may be seen immediately or after a couple of hours of waiting (there are at least four of these clinics within a fifteen minute drive of my home). Hospital emergency rooms, especially in cities, tend to be a little busy, but only if you have been triaged and determined not to need immediate care. If you need a couple of stitches, you may be waiting a little while; if you have a heart attack, you’ll receive much higher priority. I have only known one person who has gone to the US for treatment and, in her case, she chose not to wait a week for a mammogram. Living within minutes of the border and wishing to free her mind from worry, it was an easy choice for her to expedite things by driving to the US. When I speak to friends and family I generally hear the same things. Sure, we might like wait times to be a little shorter here and there; elective surgeries can come with long waiting times and in some locales there are just not enough doctors to go around. But overall, I do not know of a single Canadian who would trade our system for that of our neighbors to the south. I know of many more people who travel from the US to Canada to receive health care than vice versa. In fact, I hear there is a bustling business in forging health cards so Americans can pose as Canadians and be treated as them. If the health care is that bad, why would people be crossing the border to enjoy it?

It is worth nothing that in 2004 Canadians voted for the Greatest Canadian (yes, I know it was run through the liberal CBC, but still…) and winner was Tommy Douglas, the man who engineered the whole system. Though few Canadians would share his socialist political ideology (sitting as we are under a Conservative government), fewer still have any desire to dismantle the system he created. Is it a perfect system? No way. I don’t think there is a single nation we can point at as having a perfect system. But Canada’s system has to be as good as just about any of them.

Now it must be admitted that health care falls under the domain of the individual provinces, so care will differ from province-to-province. It is likely to be better in the Greater Toronto Area where I live than it is far to the north where towns are few and far between. Is it sustainable in the long term? I don’t have an easy answer. We could probably provide endless caveats. But for the average Canadian, the health care system is entirely adequate and we really have no good reason to complain. Take the time to ask Canadians and I am sure this is what you will find. There will always been exceptions, but for the majority of Canadians the majority of the time, our health coverage is exceptional.

I do not mean this as a defense or endorsement of what President Obama is proposing in the United States. Admittedly, if I were American, I’d be highly suspicious of the plan, especially when looking to the economics of it. Instead, I write all this simply to remind you, “don’t believe everything you hear.” This is as true when the rhetoric is coming from a conservative mouthpiece as when it comes from a liberal.

(For further reading, here are just a couple of useful articles: The Truth About Canadian Healthcare and Healthcare: Public vs. Private.)


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