An Inadequate History of Canadian Healthcare
Rumors are swirling throughout the capital that President Obama will attempt to post-pone Senate’s August recess until legislation on national health care is hammered out. Medical associations are lobbying against any attempts to nationalize coverage and former PR flak cum Center for Media and Democracy pundit Wendell Potter is following the medical industry’s attempts to subvert change. Weak-willed representatives are hoping to establish a non-profit insurance company that will operate alongside private companies while millions of Americans continue to live their lives without any financial protection should they suddenly be stricken by disease or an errant bus.
A couple of years back my parents’ neighbor gave me a copy of Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a collection of short essays designed to occupy one’s quieter moments. Recently I read an entry on Thomas Douglas, the former Premier of Saskatchewan credited with creating Canada’s medicare system. Although there are many critics of what they’ve got going on up north, particularly in terms of waiting for procedures and tests, the country does manage to spend less while providing some form of basic coverage for every citizen of their country. How did it begin?
It began with a ten-year-old immigrant kid’s broken leg. Tommy Douglas developed a bone infection and was facing the loss of limb when a doctor decided to use the boy as instruction for his students. The leg was spared, Tommy grew up and became increasingly attached to socialist ideologies. Curiously, his master’s thesis in sociology was about sterilizing and relegating to camps the mentally and physically handicapped. Experiences both in Chicago and Germany during the late 30’s caused a change of heart and Douglas wound up being elected to the House of Commons before leading the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation into power in Saskatchewan.
Medical coverage was one of many social policies the party enacted during their reign. The CCF instituted a number of Crown Corporations, basically nationalized industry groups, going after certain public utilities, fisheries and lumber-yards. To increase the amount of doctors the provincial university was expanded and prospective students were enticed towards medical education exchanging their tuition for service in small towns. The early incarnation of Saskatchewan’s health coverage slowly attracted attention in other parts of Canada.
Facing an uphill battle Douglas resigned from his Premiership in 1961, and guided legislation through hard lobbying by doctor’s associations which eventually resulted in a strike throughout the province. Doctors were brought in from different parts of Canada and abroad who worked community clinics while the private doctors kept their offices closed. Behind the scenes concessions were made offering private practices to opt out of participation as well as increasing the pay for services. Support for striking doctors eventually waned until legislation passed for universal health coverage. The Canadian government offered payments to any province who would establish state-run health care, splitting costs down the middle. The idea caught on.
These days basic coverage is free for Canadian citizens. Employees of many companies get additional benefits paid for through private insurance, including dental care which isn’t provided. Government price controls keep prescription drug costs down, attracting many Americans whose tax dollars have already gone to subsidize the same drugs. It’s not perfect, people wait for procedures and tests you can get done immediately in the states, but only if your insurance company will pay for it.
Tommy Douglas retired from politics in the 70’s and sat on the board for a energy company as well as helping to run the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation, a non-profit funding leftist political and social academics. He died from cancer in 1986 at the age of eighty-one.