Public Health | Private Hell

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Canada’s medical system delivers superior services to a greater portion of people than private programs in the United States. Nonetheless, Medicare is being “set up for a fall” by cost-cutting Liberals and ideologically driven provincial politicians.

Or so says Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, an interest group that claims 100,000 members and supporters.

At an April 2 lecture in an east end Toronto church, Barlow outlined the benefits of Medicare (the portion of Canada’s health system which is publicly funded and administered). She urged her audience not to be fooled by false claims about the supposed advantages of privatization.

“Canadians must not let a small group of politicians with their own agenda dismantle Medicare,” stated Barlow, to loud applause from the 400 people in attendance. Barlow’s Toronto stopover was part of a fifteen-city speaking tour designed to whip up support for Canada’s single-payer system.

Introduced in 1966, Medicare provides universal and comprehensive coverage for all “medically necessary” hospital and physician services. Medicare costs are split between Ottawa and the provinces.

Canada’s health system stands in stark contrast to the United States, where most citizens rely on private insurance programs. 44-million Americans — a number greater than the entire population of Canada — have no health insurance at all, while another 30–50 million have substandard coverage, said Barlow.

Infant mortality is higher in the United States (7.8 per 1,000 live births, versus 5.6 per 1,000 in Canada) while the quality of care is lower. In fact, medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. (In Canada, the top three causes of death are heart ailments, cancer and respiratory diseases.) When it comes to life expectancy, Canada ranks number two in the world, while the United States is ranked twenty-fifth.

Such dismal outcomes are to be expected in a system that requires “15 to 20 per cent investor profit every year,” stated Barlow. A dependency on profit means that patients are routinely denied care, competent workers are replaced with unqualified staff and pricey treatments are only doled out for those who can afford them.

On top of offering inadequate services, the U.S. medical system is actually more expensive than Canada’s. Total healthcare spending in America stands at over CDN$7,000 per person, roughly double the Canadian figure. Administrative costs amount to twenty-four cents on the dollar in the United States, versus ten cents on the dollar in Canada.

Corruption is also a major problem in the U.S. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that health fraud costs American taxpayers US$100-billion a year, and is currently the number one white-collar crime in that country.

The biggest problem facing Medicare, on the other hand, is government under-funding: back in the mid-1970s, the feds covered 42 per cent of healthcare spending in Canada, with the provinces picking up the rest. By 1998–1999, the federal contribution had fallen to 10.2 per cent, said Barlow.

She accused premiers Ralph Klein and Mike Harris of using the federal funding crunch as an excuse to trim provincial medical budgets. After taking office in 1995, the Ontario Tories slashed $800-million from health spending and targeted over two-dozen hospitals for closure. Klein has closed hospitals in Alberta and supported the establishment of private surgical clinics.

Such moves amount to “privatization by stealth,” warned east Toronto MPP Marilyn Churley, one of several NDP politicians and activists at the event.

In comments to reporters after her lecture, Barlow noted that the battle for Medicare had international implications.

“I work with a lot of Americans who say, ‘We want your model. Don’t let it go, because it’s what we’ve pointed to, to say, This is the way it could be,’” she stated.

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