The big lie about Canada's health care system

COMMENTARY

Recently Canadian Shona Holmes, 45, has become the poster woman for privately administered health care in the US. She has appeared in TV advertising, media interviews and Republican Party press conferences urging Americans to reject a government administered health care system.

Holmes says she was unable to get the urgent care she required for a deadly brain tumor and accompanying loss of vision and was forced to go to the US for life saving surgery. In Canada she was forced to wait 6 months to see a specialist while at the Mayo clinic in the US she got help within 2 days. “If I’d relied on my government health care, I’d be dead”, she explained in a TV commercial sponsored and paid for by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

She claims that government health care comes at a heavy price -- lack of access --lamenting the inability to buy private insurance to get quick care. “My agenda, if I have one, is to tell them (Americans), be careful what you wish for,” she told the Washington Times.

As an ordinary, working-class Canadian, I want to tell Americans that what Holmes is saying is largely false and misleading. Basic health care is provided to all people who need it in Canada, regardless of income, class and employment status. Few die because they are denied health care, unlike the US. Long waiting lists for some medical procedures and to see certain specialists do exist which has caused suffering. Some preventable deaths have occurred in hospital emergency rooms because of heavy patient loads, according to emergency ward doctors. However, these defects exist not because of socialized medicine but are due to government under funding.

In the early 1990s, Liberal Party governments implemented massive cuts to unemployment insurance, health care, education and other social programs. They chopped transfer payments to the provinces which administer health care and depend on federal funds. Right-wing provincial governments joined in by removing medical services from provincial funding. In the meantime, the population has grown while overall funding has decreased.

If people cannot access medical services, it is because they are no longer covered by provincial medical plans and they do not have the money to pay for the services themselves. One friend of mine who suffers from sleep apnea cannot get the surgery he requires to fix the problem because the British Columbian (BC) medical service plan will not cover the operation, not considered a life threatening condition. Because his sleep deprived body will not allow him to work, he does not have the $6,000 to pay for the surgery he needs. In BC, where I live, all sorts of medical services, from eye exams to chiropractor services, have been removed from public funding.

Holme’s is also misleading people about her so called life threatening ordeal. She was diagnosed with a Rathkes cleft in 1998, not a life threatening brain tumor. According to the John Wayne Cancer Center, “Rathkes cleft cysts are not true tumors or neoplasms; instead they are benign cysts. Dr. Roland del Maestro, Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute’s Brain Research Department believes that Holmes exaggerated her condition. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that Holme’s lesion was benign, slow growing and did not require urgent attention.

Michael Schwartz, a neurosurgeon at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital has never seen or heard of a death from Rathkes cleft, he told the CBC. He added that vision improves if a cyst is drained or removed.

Holmes admits that she had a Rathkes cleft, but said that it was the same as having a brain tumor and that American doctors told her that she would quickly die if it was not removed. In contrast, her Canadian doctors told her that her condition was not serious and monitored her condition.

In 2005, she suffered a 50% vision loss which was temporary and reversible, according to Schwartz. She was placed on a waiting list of 6 to 4 months to see an endocrinologist and neurologist, respectively, in Ontario. Holmes decided not to see the specialists, determined her own treatment and flew to the Mayo Clinic in the US for surgery, paying $97,000.

While she had a medical problem, it was a far cry from a life-death situation.



Holmes is now part of a right-wing effort to undermine socialized medicine in Canada. Not only is Holmes demanding that the Ontario Medical plan reimburse her, but is party to a lawsuit against the Ontario government arguing “that a government run monopolistic health system that prohibits the sale of private insurance for medically necessary care is unconstitutional.” This case is similar to the court case in Quebec in 2005 where Dr. Jacques Chaolli successfully challenged the ban on private medical insurance in the provincial Supreme Court. The issue is still before the courts and the province has still not implemented the ruling.

What the Holmes and Chaollie court challenges have in common is that they represent a Trojan horse that will open the Canadian health care system to multinational corporations and create a two-tier medical system. Once this takes place, the health care system would be subject to the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) and NAFTA, according to Scott Sinclair, a research analyst specializing in trade policy at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). The market based rules of these trade deals will undermine the public, not-for-profit character of Canadian health care, said Sinclair.

“Multinational insurance companies could then challenge regulations that aim to ensure that Canadian’s access to health care services is based on need rather than the ability to pay,” wrote Sinclair in the CCPA Monitor. “Provincial policies, guided by the Canadian Health Act, deliberately discourage the growth of private insurance markets by, for example, setting fee caps, restricting direct and extra billing, and preventing public subsidy of private practices. Such public policies will be viewed as illegal trade barriers.”

“The GATS rules and NAFTA’s tough expropriation provisions would work in tandem to accelerate the growth of private insurance markets and to make dislodging foreign insurers from the health sector next to impossible,” added Sinclair.

I strongly urge Americans to ignore Holmes and support a publicly funded health care system that ensures coverage for everyone like we have in Canada.