Public health care: We have it, Americans still don’t, they wish they did – there’s a lesson in that

Posted on September 19, 2015, 1:13 am
6 mins

PHOTO: Sorry, no relevant photos tonight. Just this shot of a typical American public servant crossing the rotunda of the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe, deep in thought. She is doubtless wishing the United States had Canada’s system of health care.


The economy, Harper Fatigue Syndrome or however one should define “old stock Canadian” may or may not be the main issue in the interminable political campaign north of the Medicine Line, but it’s not the No. 1 issue for Americans who pay attention to Canada.

As I always notice when I travel in the United States, as I am doing this week, Americans pay attention to Canadian policy, if not politics, in surprising numbers, and they focus on one issue: health care.

The reason: We have it. They still don’t, Obamacare notwithstanding. And they wish they did.

A day never passes when an openly Canadian person travelling in the United States doesn’t hear a positive comment about Canadian health care once, twice, numerous times.

This tells me, as I have long thought, that our American cousins are not fools. They are merely stuck with a sclerotic separation-of-powers system of government that makes change disliked by the most powerful elements in society extremely difficult to implement, an accident of history.

All the efforts at propaganda expended by the U.S. insurance industry, private health care corporations, their lobbyists and their bought-and-paid-for politicians don’t seem to have made a dent in the widely held perception here that in Canada we have something valuable in our public health care system, which our American cousins wish profoundly they had too.

For the many times I have heard Americans expound on the benefits of the Canadian single-payer system of public health insurance – which they also understand with a fair degree of technical sophistication in surprisingly high numbers – only once or twice have I encountered one who had heard about Canadian wait times, which the American health-care-industrial complex likes to harp about, or if they have, believes they are getting the straight goods.

This public consciousness of Canadian health care is not only widespread, it is apparent in most economic classes of U.S. citizens. Bartenders and store clerks, at any rate, are as likely to be well informed on the topic as hoary headed senior citizens like your blogger.

There is nothing particularly new about this. A friend many years ago took part as a Canadian Naval rating in a parade on San Juan Island in Washington State recalled the locals cheering, “Here come the Canadians! Now we get medicare!” as the Senior Service marched up the main drag of Friday Harbor to the inspiring strains of Heart of Oak.

If anything, the successful attempt by President Barack Obama to bring a degree of sanity to the U.S. health care system seems to have increased the awareness of what we Canadians are fortunate to possess among our American neighbours.

Typically, they are deeply shocked at the thought Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative government seeking re-election in Ottawa would be just as happy to see Canadian public health care relegated to the pages of history – which is why, of course, his government has refused to negotiate a new Health Accord with the provinces but instead has imposed a deal that, over time, will starve the system of the oxygen of funding.

Mr. Harper and his party, as is well understood, love all of the worst things about the United States, above all the inevitable power of capital in its system of government, and dislike the best things about it, especially its profound commitment to freedom of expression.

Yet, despite the fact a lot of the Americans I inevitably meet in my travels are a pretty close approximation of what Mr. Harper, the old dogwhistler, really had in mind when he spoke of  “old stock Canadians” in Thursday night’s Globe and Mail debate, which was mercifully unavailable here in this most and least atmospheric of U.S. state capitals, he’s probably very lucky they don’t get to vote in Canada.

Hint: you can count on it that Mr. Harper didn’t merely mean, as he later claimed, “the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations.”

The lesson or those of us who reside in the northern half of this continent is probably that, in this or any other election campaign, we ought never to allow health care to be relegated to the political back burner. Especially not now!

As our neighbours, who don’t have it, well understand, we have built something profoundly valuable in Canada. We need to take action to ensure we preserve it. I think we all know just what that action needs to be.

12 Comments to: Public health care: We have it, Americans still don’t, they wish they did – there’s a lesson in that

  1. David Grant

    September 19th, 2015

    I couldn’t agree with you more about this. When I travel to the US(I was in Arizona a few weeks ago)I hear the same thing. I think that so many are misinformed and there are powerful forces allied against it. There is also a very individualistic culture that is very strong. Too many people believe that they will live like the very wealthy and they don’t see themselves as possibly needing help from the government until they do need it. The most hopeful thing is the number of people I met who were enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders. That is something given that many people were born in Arizona-a state that elected Barry Goldwater perhaps the most conservative politician in the Republican Party.

  2. Raj

    September 19th, 2015

    It’s true that Canada health system is superior to America. It’s also true that the two of them are by themselves when it comes to how poor and expensive their health systems are compared to the rest of the world. It’s time to stop talking about us being better than the Americans, and to start looking at what Australia, Britain, and Sweden do a great deal better than us.

    • Adam

      September 21st, 2015

      Absolutely, Raj. One reason I am thankful for Obama and the Affordable Care Act – now that the US system is no longer the complete disaster that it was, we may actually start to consider the serious underfunding and irrationality of our own system, instead of narcissistic resting on our laurels . This isn’t to say that we should follow, for instance, the South Korean system (I think if you suffer serious surgery you do not get well covered, for instance, which is not a good thing, while I guess that some of their advantaged may be thanks to economies of scale from their denser population), but lots of things are better handled there. And wait times are indeed a problem in Canada, not compared to the US, but compared to what we should be. The disastrous cuts of the 90s and nuls still burden us. Not once but many times with the Korean community here in London, Ontario, I have been told of people who went to South Korea to get a vital operation or test done which they had to wait to long too get here. And a country which cannot provide dental care even to children does not have good health-care.

  3. Johnjohn

    September 20th, 2015

    I long for the day when we have American style health care where people have a choice in what care they want and we have the efficiencies in a market-driven system, one that our system cannot and never will offer. No wonder why so many Canadians go to the USA to get better care than they do in a soviet-driven system. Tommy Douglas was the worst “leader” I our history.

    • pogo

      September 20th, 2015

      So I take it you’re a felon as well as a troll, because otherwise you’d already be down there letting the market drive you with the care you want instead of the care you need.
      P.S. two stitches, 5 mins. Dr. time, $1200. Heart surgery? Priceless! Thanks Obama!

    • jerrymacgp

      September 20th, 2015

      Seriously? You do know that the largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical bills? That in the States, ability to pay, not severity of illness, is the criterion for access to care? Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which is the most pitiful excuse for health care reform anyone can imagine, has done little to change this.

      In Canada, urgency of an individual’s health care condition, not the thickness of their wallet, is the only criterion for determining their access to care. As for efficiencies, the cost of administration in the Canadian system is a minor fraction of those in the U.S., where the enormous administrative infrastructure needed to bill multiple payers is a serious burden.

      The problems in the Canadian system are largely the fault of right-wing neo-liberal politicians that have underfunded it for years in an effort to discredit it in the eyes of the public and open the door to privatization.

      • jerryjeryy

        September 25th, 2015

        It’s already taking up over 40% of our budgets and increases more than the rate of inflation. Single payer health care in Canada has failed and it’s time for a new, private, market based system that will allow for choice and freedom for all people.

    • Ra

      September 20th, 2015

      Johnjohn, America spends far more than anyone else and has worse outcomes. The system is a giant joke.

    • MAGGIE

      September 20th, 2015

      Bless your heart, hon.

    • David Grant

      September 21st, 2015

      The choice you get is whether you have the money and can afford the health care that is provided in the US and those that can’t. John quotes the number of people who travel to the US for care, but there are plenty of people going the other way to get health care in Canada. My late father didn’t have to worry about paying for his cancer care, whereas if we lived in the US, we might have been able to afford or would have gone bankrupt to pay the costs. It is true that our care could be better compared to many European countries, but Canada with its shortcomings is still a good system. Let’s work to make it better.

  4. pogo

    September 22nd, 2015

    I do realize that our host must relax from time to time, but those of us who toil in relentless effort do wish him well. Are you well?


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