There is a widespread belief in the United States that our health care system is the best in the world. While it might be true that we have some of the best doctors, the best hospitals, and the most advanced technology, demographic data on such issues as “average life expectancy” call into question the use of the term "best."
In terms of overall health, the United States does not compare well among such industrialized countries as Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan. We have the lowest life expectancy, the highest infant mortality rate, the highest health care costs as a percentage of gross domestic product, and the highest percentage of government revenue spent on health. How can this be if our system is the best?
During the 2009 debate on the Affordable Care Act, many allegations were made. Among those allegations was a warning that whatever we did to modify health care delivery in the United States, we certainly don't want to follow the Canadians. In the last weeks before the November presidential election, these allegations have resurfaced.
I decided to interview some Canadians. My intent was to solicit not just their views on the Canadian health care system but also their personal observations and experiences.
I asked four adult professionals about not only their personal satisfaction but also, in the case of two interviewees, their experience as small business owners with employees.
Leslie Wooley is a faculty member at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, 30 miles from the U.S. border. Her discipline is education. She is married with one child now attending McGill University. Wooley described her personal experience with the Canadian health care system in very positive terms.
She admitted making limited use of the system but was quite complimentary about her experience many years ago when her son was born. That birth's end cost to her family was a mere $25. That cost resulted from the purchase of beer which had been reported as beneficial for mothers who intended to breastfeed their babies. The Canadian government would not pay for the beer!
Beare Weatherup and his wife, Susan, are the owners of an elegant inn in Kingston. Beare has 10 full-time employees. Beare described, in detail, the experience of his father having ingested a piece of wood that caused a serious internal infection. His father was hospitalized for an extended period, receiving extraordinary care and medication. He survived the ordeal satisfactorily and did not have to pay anything for the treatment he received.
Beare said he does not know of anyone who has had to file for bankruptcy or lost their home because of health care expenses. Still, the Canadian government pays a lower percentage of health care costs than does the federal government in the United States.
Billie Caverson is the business manager of a marina in Kingston. She has about 10 employees working full time. Billie's personal experience with the Canadian health care system is fairly extensive. She has been treated for epilepsy but has had no episodes in recent years.
Billie does have periodic MRIs to monitor her illness. Billie indicated she had no worries about the health care available to her employees nor any health care expenses because everyone is eligible to receive the benefits of government managed health care. Additionally, there is no paperwork because every citizen has a health care card used much like a credit card. You simply present your card when you visit your doctor, clinic or hospital. They record the information and that is it. It is amazingly simple, she said.
Billie must receive periodic MRIs. Sometimes the wait for those MRIs is longer than she would prefer. As long as her illness was in remission, her personal health care circumstance was not judged to be urgent and therefore she did not need immediate access.
Margaret Harrison is a professor in the School of Nursing at Queens University. She has a more sophisticated perspective than the average citizen. She admits to not being "totally" socialist like her colleagues.
On the other hand, she speaks very positively about the government-managed health care system in Canada. She admits the system is not perfect, but she is confident it is responsive to the needs of the people and uses the comparative data described above as an indication of that fact.
She also believes that if a Canadian citizen is really sick, that person gets immediate care. In the United States, she observed, we fail to put the proper emphasis on primary care. As a result, our government and individual costs for health care are among the highest in the industrialized world.
I asked each of the interviewees whether they knew of any Canadian who traveled across the border into the United States to access our health care system. All four said they had heard stories about such trips but admitted they didn’t know of anyone who had made one.
They also said they had heard of individuals sent to the United States by the Canadian government for treatment that was not easily available in Canada. In such cases, the Canadian government paid for the treatment.
I believe it is fair to say that while no system is perfect, the Canadian health care system, as judged by the overall health of its citizens and the cost to government, might well be superior to ours!
Dennis Rittenmeyer is executive director of One Region. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.