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Lessons from Canada

January 14, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

The Canadian system, also called Medicare, guarantees coverage to every resident north of the U.S. border.

By Caitlin Kelly
The American Prospect, January 8, 2020

Canadian health care is publicly funded and privately delivered, approximately the same vision that single-payer enthusiasts have for the American system. It even shares the same name as our largest government-run insurance provider: Medicare. But contrary to persistent American partisan mythmaking, no government officials sit in doctors’ offices or haunt hospital hallways with a checklist of all the services they’ll question and deny. They don’t dictate hands-on care. Canadians face little government interference or oversight of their health care, although, for historical reasons, their doctors retain much more power than patients.

The familiar and dreaded words “co-pay,” “deductible,” “pre-existing condition,” and “out of network” are meaningless here, in English or French, Canada’s two official languages. Patients don’t waste time chasing pre-authorizations or fighting medical bills, while physicians save thousands of administrative hours.

As Americans’ life expectancy is dropping and maternal mortality is ranked shockingly high among other wealthy nations, Canadian health outcomes fare better; Canadian women live two more years than their American counterparts, men three.

But the system is far from perfect. Outpatient care, like physical and occupational therapy or prescription medicine, is paid for out of pocket. In some places, there’s no mandate to use electronic records, so patient information can be difficult to access. And medical care of impoverished and remote First Nation and Inuit communities is openly acknowledged as abysmal.

Canada provides coverage for about 35 million, one-tenth the population of the United States. But how they’ve set up their health care system, and how it evolved over the decades, is instructive, especially given the robust debate during the presidential primary about overhauling our current system. It can inform how U.S. policymakers—and Canadians, for that matter—approach cost control, physician payment, and services for vulnerable communities. Rather than scaring Americans with well-structured narratives about the alleged horrors of Canadian Medicare, we could take the opportunity to learn from it.

A Difference in Bedrock Philosophies

A fundamental conceptual difference also divides how Canadians and Americans view their relationship to using government-financed or -run services. Classic American insistence on the bedrock values of individualism, self-reliance, and shunning government aid as a sign of moral failure differs radically from that of Canadians, who are more committed politically and economically to health care equity as a collective good. Consistently receiving free health care and heavily subsidized university and college tuition fees means that Canadians of all ages and income levels experience firsthand a consistent, quantifiable return on their tax dollars.

“One thing I wish Americans would understand is that ‘who’s going to pay?’ is actually a distraction,” says Dr. Danielle Martin, executive vice president and chief medical executive of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “It’s ‘how will you organize delivery of it?’ Payment is just the first step on a worthy and interesting journey. The conflation of single-payer and wait times is false. We have wait times because of a million other issues, like we can’t get physicians to work in rural areas.”

Could This Work in the U.S.?

“The Canadian system is good, but underfunded,” says Steffie Woolhandler. “The American system is shitty but over-funded.”

https://prospect.org…


Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

Our goal is to establish a single payer model of a dramatically improved version of our Medicare program that would ensure affordable, accessible, high quality health care for everyone in our nation. The model that is closest to that vision is the Canadian Medicare program – a series of provincial single payer programs. It is not the same system as what we propose.

It is helpful for us to understand the Canadian system since it has many beneficial features that would help us improve equity and access in our own system. Also it has some deficiencies, and it is important to understand those so that we can avoid them.

The excerpts from The American Prospect article by Caitlin Kelly give you an inkling of what the Canadian system is all about. This fairly long article should be read in its entirety for a few reasons:

  • People need to understand that we are not transporting the Canadian health financing infrastructure to the United States; rather we are building a new, better-than-Canadian Medicare for All.
  • When people reject single payer Medicare for All because of certain undesirable features of the Canadian system, it is important to understand what those features are and how we would guard against them in the United States.
  • When people say that we cannot afford Medicare for All it is important to understand and explain to them how we are already paying enough to fund a better-than-Canadian system, but we need to redirect the spending of the $600 billion in recoverable administrative waste that characterizes our dysfunctional multi-payer system.
  • The most common complaint about the Canadian system is the excessive queues for some non-urgent services. People need to understand that our Medicare for All would have enough funding to ensure adequate capacity in the system through central planning and budgeting of capital improvements, not to mention including adequate funding to improve queue management.
  • Perhaps the most important lesson from Canada: “Classic American insistence on the bedrock values of individualism, self-reliance, and shunning government aid as a sign of moral failure differs radically from that of Canadians, who are more committed politically and economically to health care equity as a collective good. Consistently receiving free health care and heavily subsidized university and college tuition fees means that Canadians of all ages and income levels experience firsthand a consistent, quantifiable return on their tax dollars.”

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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