Canada’s health care system is being systematically undermined.
This, according to a Medicare Works panel that met Saturday night in the Whitehorse United Church basement.
Talking to a small crowd of concerned citizens, the panel included Canadian Health Coalition executive director Michael McBane and Council of Canadians health care campaigner Guy Caron, both from Ottawa.
“We are constantly told medicare’s broken,” said McBane.
There’s mounting pressure to privatize national health care, he said, noting Brian Day, incoming president of the Canadian Medical Association, runs a private clinic in Vancouver.
The Conservative government and many influential for-profit groups consider health care a business, said McBane.
“They see it as a private commodity.
“But access to health care should be based on need. It shouldn’t be about profit.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “I believe all taxes are bad,” noted McBane.
“But taxes pay for medicare — they pay for civilized society.
“And we’re all in trouble if he thinks they’re bad.”
By Christmas, Quebec may introduce private health insurance, said McBane.
“And once this two-tier system is in place, our trade agreements open the door to the US health-care market.
“Now, under the trade agreements, health care is protected only if it’s delivered on a non-commercial basis.”
That could change, quickly, he said.
Once US health insurance companies are involved, government support of public health care could be deemed an unfair subsidy.
Private for-profit firms could demand a similar subsidy, or insist they end.
McBane and Caron spent much of the evening debunking myths used to convince people medicare is broken.
“We face a continual barrage of misinformation,” said McBane.
“And if you hear lies long enough, you start to believe them.”
The biggest lie is that privatizing health care will improve access, he said.
“This may be true for the wealthy, but if you don’t have the money, you can’t buy insurance and won’t have this access,” he said.
Another misconception is that Canada can’t sustain its health-care spending, said McBane.
The cost of medicare has held stable at about four per cent of gross domestic product for the last 25 years, he said.
Most expect it to remain there for the next 25.
“When BC’s premier said health-care spending was out of control, he’d already cut so many social programs that it made health care look like it got a bigger piece of the pie,” said McBane.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” said Caron.
Building a two-tier system because a public system is too expensive doesn’t make sense, said McBane.
The US system actually costs twice as much as the Canadian public health system, he said.
Social activist and panel member Michael Dougherty grew up in Missouri, and remembered when his father succumbed to a long-term debilitating illness.
The family lost its business and home to the health-care bills, he said.
“All our assets had to be hidden or eliminated, and my mother, who was looking forward to a good retirement, was left destitute,” said Dougherty.
Patricia McGarr had a similar experience.
The Yukon Registered Nurses Association executive director’s Scottish father got scarlet fever as a young boy.
The family couldn’t afford a doctor.
“As a result he lost sight in one of his eyes,” said McGarr.
Canadian nurses have been medicare’s guardians, she added, noting they make up about 70 per cent of the health-care system’s workforce.
“Because of the intimate nature of our relationship with patients, I feel we have a special responsibility to intervene,” said McGarr.
Medicare works, she said.
But it needs tweaking.
“We do not have a health-care system — we have an illness-care system,” she said.
The system should focus on health promotion and illness prevention, she said.
And wait times are a problem, said McBane.
“But they’re a symptom of having made cuts to the system.”
Ontario lost 12,000 nurses in the ‘90s, he said.
Recruiting health-care workers would lessen wait times, he said.
“Our taxes pay for their training, so we should ensure they work in the public system,” he added.
Systemic glitches are problematic, said Whitehorse family doctor Sally Macdonald, who’s worked in Africa and Nepal.
But Canada’s health-care system is very good, she said.
And although access to care is a concern, the public system can be improved, she said.
Cost is the biggest problem, said Macdonald, noting rising drug prices.
Health care should cover prescriptions and dental care, said McBane, noting millions of Canadians do not have health-plan coverage.
“For-profit health care is an oxymoron,” he said, quoting Harvard doctor Bernard Lowen. “Because the moment health care is rendered for profit, it is emptied of genuine caring.”
Public action is needed to safeguard medicare.
“It’s a cornerstone of Canadian society,” said organizer and PSAC executive vice-president Jean-Francois des Lauriers.
“People shouldn’t be making a profit on something that should be a right,” he said.
If it’s not protected, those who can’t afford medicare face abject poverty just trying to survive, he said.
“We have to get to the politicians,” said McBane.
Because they are afraid to privatize it overtly — they know the majority of Canadians support health care, he said.
“They’ll only get away with it if we stay silent,” he said.
‘But if we are active, speak out and are vigilant — if the sleeping giant wakes up — they won’t get away with it.”