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An American's Experience with Canadian Health Care

  • Published: 2010-09-07 : Author: Global Health Media
  • Synopsis: Too many members of Congress persist in supporting the agenda of health insurance companies over the dire health needs of 60 to 90 million Americans.

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Have you seen the ad of the Canadian woman who supposedly had to go to Minnesota to get "life saving brain surgery" A Canadian news reporter did a superior job of fact checking than U.S. journalists, and discovered that the woman had a non-threatening cyst, not cancer.

She was probably being appropriately managed in Canada's health care system. Yes, there are some wait times, but not for life-threatening conditions.

The trumped-up message in the deceptive ad is just one more log thrown on the bonfire of distortions and fear-mongering in this summer's Congressional health care stand-off. ("You don't want government bureaucrats telling your doctor what to do!") The talking points issued by the GOP bury important issues we should be discussing, but never get around to in the polarized political climate.

The entire society benefits when we have universal coverage, according to Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson. This complex idea requires some explaining and doesn't fit in a sound-byte. For example, primary care service that costs about $18,000 per year for a diabetic can prevent complications from progressing to a leg amputation totaling over $180,000 in costly surgery, follow-up care, rehabilitation and long-term disability.

Too many members of Congress persist in supporting the agenda of health insurance companies over the dire health needs of 60 to 90 million Americans (the uninsured and the under insured). We have the costliest system in the world ($2.4 trillion) and yet we are ranked 34th in life expectancy.

But those kinds of numbers generally make people numb. That's why the ad with the woman crying about her need for brain surgery is so effective. We need to put a human face on health care reform. So okay, let's do that, but instead of a bogus story, I would like to offer a true account of what happened to me in Canada.

I moved my family from California to Vancouver, BC, in 2003 because of an offer with a new health radio venture. About five weeks after we arrived, my husband at the time, my 23 year-old son, and I received in the mail our very own Medical Service Plan cards from the provincial government. We had to pay a monthly fee of $50 each for health care that covered what I consider a basic package unlimited clinic visits, emergency care, preventive care such as immunizations and mammograms, and all hospitalizations. I was the only one with a job, and hadn't yet paid any Canadian taxes.

I thought there had to be a hitch, it was too good to be true. After all, I had heard about all the problems with the long waits and substandard care and disgruntled doctors and nurses who wished they could hightail it over the border...rightSo I decided that I would test the system.

I needed an annual gynecological exam and Pap smear but my own doctor 's staff in the U.S. told me in July that the next appointment I could get was in seven months. It was the same story whenever I called so I missed a year or two. In Canada, I called one of the "royal" medical clinics (which appear about every 10 kilometers) and braced myself for disappointment, "How long before I can get an appointment for a Pap"

"No appointment necessary," said the receptionist. I was stunned to not get a voice mail recording. "Just come in today before 8 pm"

"Well, okay, but how long do I wait"

"No more than a few minutes - we're not busy today," she insisted.

"But how long before I get results" There had to be a problem somewhere.

"We'll phone you in a week," she persisted in being helpful.

Still convinced that Canadians just don't know how bad they have it, we figured that this was just a fluke. Or else it was customary for uncomplicated health care services, but when people had serious health challenges, we'd encounter the ugly truth.

A week later my husband wondered if he could get a doctor to evaluate his extremely sore back, an injury he sustained back in the States. He gave up jumping through the hoops set up by his insurance company so he let the problem go and suffered with chronic back pain.

Let's test the Canadian "substandard" health care system once more, we agreed. He called a local royal clinic and asked for an appointment. "Just come in no appointment necessary, but if you really want one, we'll give you one" This time, I think they recognized us as same American refugees who called a week ago.

The doctor evaluated his back pain, made an appointment right away with a neurologist he knew, and scheduled my husband for an MRI (yes, one of those expensive high-tech diagnostic exams that you aren't supposed to be able to get in Canada without bribing officials). The doctor suggested some follow-up with the physiotherapist in the office. In fact, he called him into his office to evaluate my husband right there. (We call that integrative medicine in the US, and you usually have to pay $400 for an initial appointment; most don't accept insurance or Medicare.)

My husband was elated with the relief he got from the physiotherapy and massage. He was sure he'd have to wait a half-year for the MRI and neurologist, but his entire wait was 10 days. He was treated, the pain resolved, and we never saw a bill.

In fact, both of us laughed about having the same experience: see the doctor, put your clothes back on, walk up to the front desk before leaving, and ask, "What are the damages"

"Pardon me" says the polite staff.

"What's the co-pay" we would ask. They had no idea what that word meant.

"No, you don't owe anything. There is no charge. It's all taken care of. There is no bill" The royal clinic personnel had to express this staggering fact in several different ways for it to sink in.

Now, these are just our personal accounts, and for every positive story, there is no doubt a not-so-positive one on both sides of the border. That's the problem with anecdotal tales. But epidemiological data do not lie. What the Canadians and Swedes and Japanese and British and every other industrialized nation have learned is that when you offer universal coverage, you advance the health of the every resident, and life expectancy and health outcomes improve. Canadians spend less per capita than we do and enjoy longer lifespans, better management of chronic disease, and healthier lives.

Universal coverage results in improved health for every body, including the privileged segment that manages to maintain private insurance.

Next time you see a political announcement trying to scare you that health care reform would result in a loss of "choice" or "quality" or "have bureaucrats determining your medical care," see it for what it is: a desperate plea by those who benefit most from the status quo. The profits of the private insurers are enormous. Watch the statements made by Wendell Potter, a former CIGNA executive, as he is interviewed by Bill Moyers.

www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07102009/watch2.html ) and support a public health insurance option.

Or try moving to Canada if it doesn't pass.

Reference: Dr. Meg Jordan, PhD, RN, is a medical anthropologist and behavioral health specialist, and a journalist in both Canada and the US. She is editor of American Fitness Magazine and host of "Healthy Living" newscast on Global TV in Canada.

Meg Jordan, PhD., RN
Global Health Media
Sausalito, CA
415-785-7987

Re-printed with permission - Dr. Meg Jordan - Global Health Media.


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