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On America's Historic Opportunity for Universal Health Coverage

One day, if you or someone you love needs unaffordable medical care, you'll look back at this opportunity to get universal health care and remember either pushing for it, doing nothing or even actively opposing it.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published July 21, 2009

Dear Americans, I know you're being bombarded by anecdotes about Canadian health care right now, and the plural of anecdote is not data. The plural of anecdote is apparently television commercials, which I hear you're seeing a lot of right now, some featuring a Canadian whose story might not be quite true.

Most of my anecdotes involve other people. I've broken my arm, sustained some relatively minor burns, contracted pneumonia and dealt with the aches, pains and ailments that everyone gets, but I've been fortunate enough to have avoided anything serious.

Not everyone I know has been so lucky.

A friend was diagnosed with leukemia last summer. Since then, she has endured grueling chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant and is now cancer-free. She is just 26 years old.

A family member recently had knee surgery and is now the proud owner of two titanium knee joints. Only months before, he suffered a heart attack and had quadruple bypass surgery. He's not just alive, he's enjoying life and his grandchildren.

None of these medically advanced procedures required direct payment. We all helped pay to save their lives, and in return, we get the incredible social benefit of having them around, and the direct economic benefit of retaining them as productive members of society.

On the other hand, my neighbour recently complained about her experience bringing her daughter to a local emergency room. Her three-year-old daughter had bumped her head, causing a goose egg, so she roared off to the hospital.

She returned home after an unsuccessful four-hour wait for a doctor. Her daughter was fine. After all, it was just a bump on the head, and the ER has more important things to worry about. When everyone is eligible for health care, it is the ones who need it the most that are seen first.

(Note that a failure to see a doctor does not mean you do not see a medical professional - people arriving in an emergency room are assessed by registered triage nurses, who judge what attention they require.)

Anecdotes like these are not data, but they are important because they represent the average experience of Canadians. Regardless of what you may be hearing, this really is what universal health care in Canada is like: not perfect, but pretty good overall. We might complain about it, but there's no way we'd give it up in favour of the American system.

If you don't believe Canadians like me, when we tell you that this is your best opportunity to get a system that is cheaper, fairer and more effective than the one you have right now, ask yourself a simple question: why would we lie? Do you really think that we're trying to saddle you with an expensive, broken system?

Sure, many of us are angry with America over the way things have gone for the last few decades and particularly the last eight or so years, but in spite of all that, we still like Americans. Hearing about the people who go bankrupt every year because of medical expenses - 60 percent of all Americans who go bankrupt due so from medical bills - whether they have health insurance or not - saddens us.

Reading about people who go without medical care because they can't afford it and eventually die of treatable illnesses appalls us. Seeing our medical system trashed in right wing television commercials infuriates us.

Some day, you or someone you love will need medical care that just isn't affordable unless it's paid for by the government. When that day comes, you'll look back at this opportunity to get universal health care and you'll either remember how hard you pushed for it, or you'll remember doing nothing or even actively opposing it.

At that moment, the issue will not be political, it will be deeply personal. At this moment, you need to make a decision based on that moment, because that's what this issue is really about.

That moment is going to lead to an anecdote of your own. I hope that anecdote is about a medical success chalked up to a universal health care system, instead of the first of many chronicling frustrating negotiations with insurance companies, or worse, a descent into debt and worsening illness.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz


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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 22, 2009 at 07:36:59

About 4 years ago my father was eating breakfast when suddenly all the colour drained out of his face and he fainted, hitting his head on the table and falling to the floor. Five minutes later on the way to the hospital this happened again starting with the same feeling of "the life draining out of me" (his words). It happened again in the triage room when the nurse was examining him. After seeing that she took us right in to see a doctor and within 48 hours they had not only diagnosed the problem, (a rare nerve disease which interrupted the signals from the brain to the heart telling it to beat), but they also corrected it by installing a pacemaker. In the U.S. this ordeal would have cost anywhere from $70,000 to over $100,000 but thanks to our system by dad was back at work after a week of bed-rest with only a scar and the lump of the pacemaker as a reminder.

Our system isn't perfect by any means but I would much rather wait in an ER because the person ahead of me is in worse shape, rather than because he/she has a fatter wallet.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2009 at 09:02:04

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By LEVERAMA (anonymous) | Posted July 22, 2009 at 16:36:48

Good article Ade. Here's the math from my perspective:

A few Canadians do wait longer for some aspects of care and diagnosis, some pay out-of-pocket, but even fewer go broke accessing this care.

Many Americans forgo care and diagnosis for lack of insurance. On average, health care puts more American's in bankruptcy than bad investments and court cases combined.

Both systems have some serious gaps, but I'd rather build on the foundation of the Canadian one.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2009 at 21:29:40

You want anecdotes? Here's our tally for the kids for major things:

One son had cardiac surgery at Sick Kids as an infant following an ER visit and diagnosis at Mac. He was flown over in a helicopter. Subsequent to that, an angioplasty 8 months later. Now seven years old. Picture of health. Regular follow-up echo cardiograms, first yearly, now every two years.

Youngest child spent 100 days in the Mac NICU ( Laser eye surgery to prevent retinopathy of prematurity. Yearly follow-up visits with developmental pediatrician and other specialists for as long as it was felt she needed them. Still sees the pediatric eye doctor for yearly follow-ups. Hearing impaired, learned to listen and speak with a cochlear implant at the age of 1 year. Sees audiologist at Sick Kids regularly. Now at the age of 5, just completed senior kindergarten, performs at grade level for all rubrics.

Nine year-old-- appendicitis-- hospital stay, surgery, follow-up visits.

If I'm in the ER with someone because they need an x-ray for a sprained ankle, then I fully expect to wait a long time-- as I should, when the needs of all the others are taken into account.

We're still solvent. And glad enough to pay taxes, that's for sure. I won't even get started on my grandparents, my parents, my siblings...

Boy-- I wish they'd asked me to talk about Canadian health care.

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By Bob (registered) | Posted July 25, 2009 at 17:18:52

Someone should sharpen this debate. Canadian Health care is a ponzi scheme that will collapse as soon as boomers hit the skids and Gen xers sag under the weight of too many boomers. Only then will we be able to figure out what is sustainable, what is true. I suspect the public/ private debate will be finished with the public sector down for the count. Until then, be careful what you wish for.

Americans have more young people, less of a demographic bulge so they may be more successful, especially if the right can create some better usage restrictions than our politically correct rationing approach (spare individual lifestyle criticism, penalize everyone).

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By Chris Angel (registered) | Posted August 09, 2009 at 12:20:07

Both the Canadian and American medical system have the same fundamental flaw. Payment by a self interested 3rd party undermining service to the patient. Some may argue that a public or state supported system has no self interest. This is not true as it is linked with the political structure. For example generations of Canadian have been feed lies about how our system is the envy of practically every nation on earth. Experience it first hand and you quickly learn it is medical care of the lowest common denominator. Not only is the 3rd rate service harmful and inefficient but it is not remotely adequate in its coverage. This requires all Canadians to have secondary coverage for drugs, eyeglasses, dental service and a growing list of items not covered. Our politicians of all stripe pretend that this does not exist and offer up putrid dreck about how this or that undermines the sanctity of our "single tier" system. It has been a multi tier system all my working life 30+ years. When I have a benefit plan from a private service provider I get a comprehensive description of the services provided and the period this contract is in effect for. With OHIP I get zip. Outrageous that anyone can have any faith in such a blank cheque system. With a private plan I know to the penny what it costs. What does socialized medicine cost? What does my OHIP cost, I would like to know but it would be ridiculously difficult to find out primarily because no one wants the user to know. I am sure costs are being managed wonderfully in this system we only get glimpses of. In fairness some of the same elements exist in the US system because the customer is the HMO not the patient. The same way when a Canadian seeks medical care here the customer is the province not the patient. Care is provided 100% in keeping with government or business guidelines and as long as it is provided in accordance with those guidelines the provider is paid. No matter if the service was acceptable to the patient or not. The only positive changes possible in either system is rigorous cost analysis and scrutiny - no more $80 hospital aspirin and most importantly patient sign off for payment to medical service providers. That will be fought tooth and nail by both government and business as it relinquishes a minuscule bit of power. It is our money in both cases and without this missing element the patient is at the end of a long list or missing entirely from it. This obvious vital element is conspicuously absent from all discussion of health care reform on either side of the border. Wake me up when it is; if I live that long.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 10, 2009 at 11:57:39

In regard to this topic:

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