Strengthening Canadian health care

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My 72 year old mother died almost four years ago of cancer. She had no family doctor to quarterback her treatments and my then 80 year old father was forced to cope with anxiety and stress of taking care of and shepherding my mother to her appointments. My siblings and I live in various parts of North America and we took shifts travelling to Montreal to alleviate some of the work load. It was excruciatingly painful for all of us. My brothers, sister and I were with her when she took her last breath. It was in a large, grungy old room at the Montreal General Hospital. In a four month period, her visits and treatments took her to repeated stops at a community clinic, the Lakeshore General Hospital, Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal General Hospital, and Montreal Neurological Institute. Her final days should not have been spent this way. They should have been at home, under medical supervision, and free of worry and the incredibly tiring and stressful waits in crowded hospitals.

My mother’s story is far from unique. It is one of the reasons why Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party recently unveiled a National Family Care Plan.

Wait times and access is a major challenge across Canada today. That’s one of the reasons why private for profit clinics are sprouting up everywhere. To pretend that people with money can’t “jump the queue” for surgical procedures, MRI’s or CT scans, is to deny reality. People can and do. In fact, people face these decisions every day. Do they endure pain for the months or even years it takes to wait for a knee or hip to be fixed or replaced or spend thousands to a private clinic?  Most people don’t have the capacity to make that choice. They have to wait. Their quality of life, productivity, relationships, and in many cases, their ability to earn an income suffers, because our performance is vastly diminished when we try to do anything in pain. Besides the pain and the indignity of the wait, our economy suffers we people are not at their productive best. It is very tough to quantify the negative impact this has on Canada’s economic performance. But we can be sure that it is not good. 

Despite some of its deficiencies, we are blessed to have the health care system we do. I also marvel at the quality and dedication of our doctors, nurses, professionals and volunteers that are on the front lines.

I have several friends who have lived with the American system. For them, the Canadian system is nirvana. One American friend who is now a landed immigrant and owns a business in Vancouver told me today that when her son was bitten by a rabid bat, the health care system rallied on a Sunday to deal with the bat and her son. She marveled at how efficiently physicians monitored his case until he had gone through the entire round of vaccinations, which took three months.

Well before the US economy tanked in 2008, 40 million Americans had no health care at all. That is simply unimaginable for Canadians. And at the moment, the Tea Party and Republicans want to ditch Obama’s reforms, while extending $150 billion worth of tax cuts to the very richest. I like and respect our American friends. But there’s something seriously wrong with that picture from where I sit. It also makes me, and many like me, not only proud of the system we have - warts and all - but determined to protect and strengthen it.  The bedrock and guiding principles of any reform must be Canadian values - no one else’s.  

However, I suspect that most reasonable people agree that the status quo is not the answer. Partisanship and dogma has no place in this discussion. The country needs solutions and an informed and civil conversation. A vast majority of Canadians agree that the core principles of Medicare are sacrosanct. And those principles are embedded in the guiding values of the Canada Health Act. They are the following: Health care plans must be available to all eligible residents of Canada; comprehensive in coverage; accessible without financial and other barriers; portable within the country and during travel abroad; and publicly administered.

Medicare is a competitive advantage in a competitive world – a key driver of innovation and economic activity. It is wrong to see it only as a cost centre. Medicare also levels the playing field for our businesses, enabling them to attract skilled workers and offer them a standard of living comparable to their larger competitors. It allows our workers the freedom to move between jobs and regions, unlike other nations where millions of people are reluctant to move for fear of losing their coverage.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, notably absent from this critical area since they were first elected five years ago is the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Yet, Canadians expect federal leadership on health and health care. We expect partnership between governments. We want our governments to fight for Medicare, not over Medicare. We expect the social contract that Medicare represents to be honoured, not abandoned.

The federal government has the jurisdiction, the role, and the responsibility to defend the national interest and our shared objectives: to ensure that Medicare survives and thrives, to ensure the principles of Medicare are respected by enforcing the Canada Health Act, and to share in the cost of the system by providing funding to the provinces and territories.


The Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Member of Parliament for St. Paul’s and one of many medical doctors in the Liberal caucus, said in Toronto today: “Our fight is with those who seek to create fear so that they can destroy public health care – the ideologues and incrementalists who want to tear up the Canada Health Act, the charter of our health care system, and replace it with something less universal, less equal, more private, and less Canadian”.


We must strengthen the health care system. We must modernize it. And we must secure it for the future for all Canadians. The question is how we go about doing that. 


Let the conversation begin.


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