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Simple and Efficient

Missing Canada’s Health Care System in Tucson

by SOL LITTMAN

Ever since my wife and I chose to leave Canada and settle in Tucson, we have been amazed and angered by the distortions and misrepresentations in the American media of Canada’s government-funded, one-payer medical system.

For most of my adult life, I worked as a journalist in Canada and took full advantage of Canada’s health-care system. My wife, daughter and grandchildren were free to choose their own primary doctors and specialists. Service was consistently kindly, prompt and concerned. If something serious was suspected, we were tested, X-rayed and examined in a matter of days. Our physicians were highly trained and the hospital facilities modem and pleasant.

Thirty years ago, I had my gall bladder removed and had to spend three or four days in hospital. When I was discharged, I was presented with the bill–a total of $5.50 for the use of the television set in my semi-private room. The Ontario Hospital Insurance Plan paid the rest.

It is important for Americans to know that people in Canada tend to live a couple of years longer than their U.S. counterparts and that Canada’s infant mortality rate is lower. This is attributed to the fact that everyone–young, old, working or unemployed–is covered for basic hospital and medical care in Canada without co-insurance or deductibles. This is in contrast to the United States, where there are more uninsured people (over 40 million) than Canadian inhabitants.

American critics of Canada’s health care are quick to cite the fact that there are lengthy waiting lists for non-emergency medical procedures. It is also true that there is considerable overcrowding in some hospitals, but this is due to the fact that emergencies are treated immediately even if it means a lineup of gurneys in the hospital corridor–a situation I have found exists in American emergency wards as well.

The Canadian system does not rely on private insurance companies. The system is run by 10 provinces and two territories. They pay the bills and set the rules. Medicare, which services the American elderly, is the closest approximation to the Canadian one-payer system, but there are important differences.

In the United States, the government pays the bills but private insurance companies that are more wasteful than the government run the system. In addition, some of our American health-care dollars go to make the insurance companies rich and play no role in actual health care.

The waiting times for some procedures are longer in Canada than in the United States, but this problem is being actively tackled by the government in the wake of a Canada Supreme Court decision that "access to a waiting list is not access to health care." However, the decision did not abolish the one-payer system–in fact, it reinforced it by giving the Quebec government, which was the chief object of the lawsuit, 12 months to remedy the situation.

As a result, Quebec is working hard to catch up with the rest of Canada. The average wait for a hip replacement has been reduced to four to five weeks, and knee replacements usually take six to seven weeks. This may still be too long, but if you happen to be one of the 40 million uninsured Americans, you might have to wait forever.

Why have my wife and I chosen to spend our retirement years in Tucson? We did, in fact, worry about leaving behind our Canadian health care, but climate, the availability of year-round golf and relatively good health persuaded us to take the chance.

We have found medical services in Tucson excellent, but expensive and complicated. We don’t like being at the mercy of an HMO and have yet to decipher the ins and outs of the new drug plan. We continue to long for the simplicity and efficiency of Canada’s single-payer system.

SOL LITTMAN is a former Canadian journalist living in Tucson with his wife, Mildred.