Monday, December 14, 2009

Tommy Douglas and the Canadian Health System

Five years ago, on November 29, 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) program "The Greatest Canadian" revealed the winner of that designation. According to Wikipedia, this "was not decided by a simple popular poll, but was instead chosen through a two-step voting process. On October 17, 2004 the CBC aired the first part of The Greatest Canadian television series. In it, the bottom 40 of the top 50 "greatest" choices were revealed, in order of popularity, determined by polls conducted by E-mail, Web site, telephone, and letter. To prevent bias during the second round of voting, the top ten nominees were presented alphabetically rather than by order of first round popularity. This second vote was accompanied by a series of documentaries, where 10 Canadian celebrities acting as advocates each presented their case for The Greatest Canadian.” The winner was not a Canadian prime minister, or sports figure, or show business celebrity, or even inventor (like Alexander Graham Bell – did you know he was Canadian?). It was Tommy Douglas.

Who? If you’re American, you probably haven’t heard of him, but that would likely be true of most of the top 10 (except Bell and Wayne Gretzky, who were nos. 9 and 10, and maybe Pierre Trudeau). Douglas, who died in 1986, was a prime minister of the western prairie province of Saskatchewan in the 1940s and 50s. In 1961 he became the first national leader of the New Democratic Party, a post he held for 10 years. I’m sure he was a fine leader in many ways, but what won him this honor was the fact that he was the father of the Canadian national healthcare system, called Medicare. First introduced in Saskatchewan in 1962, the program became federal in 1966 with passage of the Canada Health Act, and was fully implemented by 1971.

Canadian Medicare is a “single-payer” system, such as that advocated by many, including myself, for the United States. It is actually administered by each of the country’s 13 provinces, with much of the funding coming from the federal government through a match. While there are some differences in the coverage in the different provinces, they all must meet five principles: they must be publicly administered, comprehensive, universal, portable (i.e., residents of one province must be covered in other provinces), and accessible. In Canada, doctors and other medical practitioners (mostly in private practice) provide services and submit the bill to the “single payer”, the provincial health ministry, and are then reimbursed at rates annually negotiated between the ministry and the medical associations. Hospitals are provided funding on an annual basis (a “global” fee) rather than fee-for-service, and importantly capital budgets are separate from operating budgets, so that a hospital cannot scrimp on patient care services in order, for example, to build a new building or buy an expensive piece of equipment. Everyone is covered. Everyone can get care. Administrative costs, for both providers and government, are kept down because there is only one payer. Costs for healthcare continue to rise, but at a much slower pace than in the US (see figure).

Are there complaints? Sure. There will always be complaints from people in any system not built specifically around them and their individual needs. Are waiting times sometimes longer than in the US? For elective procedures they might be, provided that you are a person who has excellent health insurance in the US. If you are a person without, or with poor, health insurance you might never get elective surgery in the US. And the waits in Canada, most recently, are certainly not excessive...4 weeks for elective surgery, 3 for an MRI scan. We hear stories of Canadians coming to the US for health care, and undoubtedly there are well-to-do people in Canada who do not wish to wait in line with everyone else (a common characteristic of many of the well-to-do), so come to the US. A 2002 study published in Health Affairs by Katz, et. al. (“Phantoms in the snow: Canadians’ use of health care services in the United States”) revealed, among other data, that in a survey of 18,000 Canadians only 90 had received any health care in the US in the last year and of those, only 20 had gone seeking it (hey, Canadians do go to Florida in the winter and get sick!). And there are many more uninsured Americans who cross the border in search of health care; so many that the Canadian provinces have now put photographs on their Medicare cards so that US citizens cannot borrow them from Canadians.

The system works quite well. Most Canadians (over 80%) are very satisfied with it, and a very small % would wish to trade it for a non-system like that in the US. But this is not what is going to happen with US health reform. Despite the support of nearly 100 representatives for Rep. John Conyers’ “Medicare for All” bill, and the work done in the House by him and others such as Anthony Weiner and Dennis Kucinich, it was not part of the House proposal. And a similar proposal from Sen. Bernie Sanders will likely not be voted on in the Senate. Instead, we are getting sausage – liberally spiced with financial input from the health insurance industry.

Most Americans do not know who Tommy Douglas is, but Canadians do. And they believe that spearheading their single-payer universal health system earns him the title of “Greatest Canadian”. I don’t see any of the leaders of the current effort to “craft” health reform in the US earning a similar honor.

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