Canadians cry foul over U.S. healthcare attacks

By Allan Dowd

Canadian physician Robert Ouellet is tired of hearing Canada's healthcare system cast as the boogeyman in the vitriolic U.S. political debate over healthcare reform.

Critics of President Barack Obama's reform drive have accused him of trying to adopt the Canadian system of public healthcare funding, which they say endangers patients with lengthy waits for medical care.

Some advertisements feature Canadian citizens who say they were denied needed medical care or forced to seek treatment at their own expense in the United States because Canada's system was too slow to respond.

While Ouellet, president of the Canadian Medical Association, admits that Canada's system has its flaws, including excessive wait times for some medical services, he denies the accusation that it puts lives at risk.

"To say that the system is a complete failure is not fair. When people go to the hospital they get good quality medical care. ... People are not dying on the street," said Ouellet, who practices medicine in the French-speaking province of Quebec.

Canada's "national" system is actually a set of provincial and territorial insurance systems governed by a federal law that says coverage is universal, and ensures that taxpayers, not patient fees, pay for primary medical services so everyone can afford them..

"It's 14 systems," Ouellet said.


Canadians are quick to cite healthcare as a cultural difference with their southern neighbor, describing it as inconceivable that 47 million Americans -- more than Canada's population -- live without health insurance.

"It's seen as something that separates us from the United States," said Mike Luff, a spokesman for the National Union of Public and General Employees.

The attacks on Canada's healthcare are also "ironic" because "Obama's plan doesn't come close to what the system is in Canada," Luff said.

White House-backed Bills now making their way through the U.S. House and Senate would overhaul rules for private health insurers, and offer them competition in the form of a government-run health program.

Private health insurance is also available in Canada, as a supplement to the government-funded insurance system, and Canadians face the same television advertisements as Americans about the risks of not having it.

Canadians can also pay private clinics for some procedures to avoid waiting, but major medical treatments must be done through the government-funded system.

Ouellet says each country has something to learn from the other about health care, and should also take lessons from European countries that provide universal care while reducing both costs and wait times.

Dr. Brian Day, a past CMA president who has advocated for a bigger private-sector role in Canada, is also dismayed that Americans and Canadians focus on one another and ignore the rest of the world when discussing healthcare reform.

"Clearly the Canadian system has problems, but the United States has more problems. ... Neither country is giving value for money," Day said.

The Canadian government has stayed quiet on the U.S. debate, but it may have no choice but to speak out if the Canadian public grows more upset at what it sees as unfair U.S. attacks on a source of national pride, said Mario Canseco, of the polling firm Angus Reid Strategies.

"Sooner or later someone from the federal government is going to have to stand up and say leave us out of this," said Canseco.

Canadian politicians may also be leery of involvement in the U.S. debate because they recognize if the Americans reform their system it could force Canada to address its own healthcare problems, according to Ouellet.

"It's good to have someone like President Obama who wants to fix things," Ouellet said.


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