6. Canada's care plan only covers the basics. You're still on your own for any extras, including prescription drugs. And you still have to pay for it.
True -- but not as big an issue as you might think. The province does charge a small monthly premium (ours is $108/month for a family of four) for the basic coverage. However, most people never even have to write that check: almost all employers pick up the tab for their employees' premiums as part of the standard benefits package; and the province covers it for people on public assistance or disability.
"The basics" covered by this plan include 100% of all doctor's fees, ambulance fares, tests, and everything that happens in a hospital -- in other words, the really big-ticket items that routinely drive American families into bankruptcy. In BC, it doesn't include "extras" like medical equipment, prescriptions, physical therapy or chiropractic care, dental, vision, and so on; and if you want a private or semi-private room with TV and phone, that costs extra (about what you'd pay for a room in a middling hotel). That other stuff does add up; but it's far easier to afford if you're not having to cover the big expenses, too. Furthermore: you can deduct any out-of-pocket health expenses you do have to pay off your income taxes. And, as every American knows by now, drugs aren't nearly as expensive here, either.
Filling the gap between the basics and the extras is the job of the country's remaining private health insurers. Since they're off the hook for the ruinously expensive big-ticket items that can put their own profits at risk, the insurance companies make a tidy business out of offering inexpensive policies that cover all those smaller, more predictable expenses. Top-quality add-on policies typically run in the ballpark of $75 per person in a family per month -- about $300 for a family of four -- if you're stuck buying an individual plan. Group plans are cheap enough that even small employers can afford to offer them as a routine benefit. An average working Canadian with employer-paid basic care and supplemental insurance gets free coverage equal to the best policies now only offered at a few of America's largest corporations. And that employer is probably only paying a couple hundred dollars a month to provide that benefit.
7. Canadian drugs are not the same.
More preposterious bogosity. They are exactly the same drugs, made by the same pharmaceutical companies, often in the same factories. The Canadian drug distribution system, however, has much tighter oversight; and pharmacies and pharmacists are more closely regulated. If there is a difference in Canadian drugs at all, they're actually likely to be safer. Also: pharmacists here dispense what the doctors tell them to dispense, the first time, without moralizing. I know. It's amazing.
8. Publicly-funded programs will inevitably lead to rationed health care, particularly for the elderly.
False. And bogglingly so. The papers would have a field day if there was the barest hint that this might be true.
One of the things that constantly amazes me here is how well-cared-for the elderly and disabled you see on the streets here are. No, these people are not being thrown out on the curb. In fact, they live longer, healthier, and more productive lives because they're getting a constant level of care that ensures small things get treated before they become big problems.
The health care system also makes it easier on their caregiving adult children, who have more time to look in on Mom and take her on outings because they aren't working 60-hour weeks trying to hold onto a job that gives them insurance.
9. People won't be responsible for their own health if they're not being forced to pay for the consequences.
False. The philosophical basis of America's privatized health care system might best be characterized as medical Calvinism. It's fascinating to watch well-educated secularists who recoil at the Protestant obsession with personal virtue, prosperity as a cardinal sign of election by God, and total responsibility for one's own salvation turn into fire-eyed, moralizing True Believers when it comes to the subject of Taking Responsibility For One's Own Health.
They'll insist that health, like salvation, is entirely in our own hands. If you just have the character and self-discipline to stick to an abstemious regime of careful diet, clean living, and frequent sweat offerings to the Great Treadmill God, you'll never get sick. (Like all good theologies, there's even an unspoken promise of immortality: f you do it really really right, they imply, you might even live forever.) The virtuous Elect can be discerned by their svelte figures and low cholesterol numbers. From here, it's a short leap to the conviction that those who suffer from chronic conditions are victims of their own weaknesses, and simply getting what they deserve. Part of their punishment is being forced to pay for the expensive, heavily marketed pharmaceuticals needed to alleviate these avoidable illnesses. They can't complain. It was their own damned fault; and it's not our responsibility to pay for their sins. In fact, it's recently been suggested that they be shunned, lest they lead the virtuous into sin.
Of course, this is bad theology whether you're applying it to the state of one's soul or one's arteries. The fact is that bad genes, bad luck, and the ravages of age eventually take their toll on all of us -- even the most careful of us. The economics of the Canadian system reflect this very different philosophy: it's built on the belief that maintaining health is not an individual responsibility, but a collective one. Since none of us controls fate, the least we can do is be there for each other as our numbers come up.
This difference is expressed in a few different ways. First: Canadians tend to think of tending to one's health as one of your duties as a citizen. You do what's right because you don't want to take up space in the system, or put that burden on your fellow taxpayers. Second, "taking care of yourself" has a slightly expanded definition here, which includes a greater emphasis on public health. Canadians are serious about not coming to work if you're contagious, and seeing a doctor ASAP if you need to. Staying healthy includes not only diet and exercise; but also taking care to keep your germs to yourself, avoiding stress, and getting things treated while they're still small and cheap to fix.
Third, there's a somewhat larger awareness that stress leads to big-ticket illnesses -- and a somewhat lower cultural tolerance for employers who put people in high-stress situations. Nobody wants to pick up the tab for their greed. And finally, there's a generally greater acceptance on the part of both the elderly and their families that end-of-life heroics may be drawing resources away from people who might put them to better use. You can have them if you want them; but reasonable and compassionate people should be able to take the larger view.
The bottom line: When it comes to getting people to make healthy choices, appealing to their sense of the common good seems to work at least as well as Calvinist moralizing.
10. This all sounds great -- but the taxes to cover it are just unaffordable. And besides, isn't the system in bad financial shape?
False. On one hand, our annual Canadian tax bite runs about 10% higher than our U.S. taxes did. On the other, we're not paying out the equivalent of two new car payments every month to keep the family insured here. When you balance out the difference, we're actually money ahead. When you factor in the greatly increased social stability that follows when everybody's getting their necessary health care, the impact on our quality of life becomes even more signficant.
And True -- but only because this is a universal truth that we need to make our peace with. Yes, the provincial plans are always struggling. So is every single publicly-funded health care system in the world, including the VA and Medicare. There's always tension between what the users of the system want, and what the taxpayers are willing to pay. The balance of power ebbs and flows between them; but no matter where it lies at any given moment, at least one of the pair is always going to be at least somewhat unhappy.
But, as many of us know all too well, there's also constant tension between what patients want and what private insurers are willing to pay. At least when it's in government hands, we can demand some accountability. And my experience in Canada has convinced me that this accountability is what makes all the difference between the two systems.
It is true that Canada's system is not the same as the U.S. system. It's designed to deliver a somewhat different product, to a population that has somewhat different expectations. But the end result is that the vast majority of Canadians get the vast majority of what they need the vast majority of the time. It'll be a good day when when Americans can hold their heads high and proudly make that same declaration.