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What Canada Tells Us About Government Health Care

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Americans may not agree on much between now and November, but we have reached a consensus about the importance of at least one issue: health care.

In a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of registered voters said that health care was very important to their vote. Democrats ranked health care their most important issue; Independents slotted it as their second most important issue. Republicans, meanwhile, positioned health care as more important than social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research.

This public concern has prompted political action—or at least political posturing. It seems every politician has a plan to solve our health care woes. For Democrats, the silver bullet remains universal, government-funded coverage. Both Senators Obama and Clinton have proposed regulation and tax-heavy programs to offer cradle-to-grave health care for Americans.

Ironically, these proposals come at a time when some of our other entitlements—Social Security and Medicare—stand on the brink of collapse. For example, most experts agree that Social Security will be entirely bankrupt by 2041, and that the system will show serious financial strain as early as 2017. If a business faced such dire financial straits it would cut costs, but the government continues its perpetual spending spree.

Before we allow the government to burden us with another mammoth entitlement program, however, we might well consider the plight of countries currently employing socialized medicine. And we need not look very far for an example. Since the 1960s, Canada has operated a system of socialized medicine, while also forbidding the private sector from insuring medically necessary care.

The verdict: Canadians pay more for their health care and get less. That’s according to the Fraser Institute, an independent research and educational organization based in Canada. Fraser’s recently released study, “Paying More, Getting Less: Measuring the Sustainability of Government Health Spending in Canada” calls our attention to the painful realities of government-funded health care.

How, exactly, do Canadians pay more for their health care? Taxes, naturally—and higher and higher ones at that, for there is no other way to maintain such an enormous entitlement. Consider that by 2035, six of 10 Canadian provinces will spend half of their taxpayer-generated revenue on health-related expenses.

In slow economic times, health spending tends to exceed revenue. The government responds by raising existing taxes or creating new ones; to do otherwise would lead to the neglect of other government programs like schools and roads.

By restricting the market, public health care programs create long waits for specialists and often prevent patients from pursuing new treatments. Indeed, the median wait times between a referral from a family or general doctor to a specialist for further treatment increased significantly in every Canadian province between 1997 and 2006. For many treatments and procedures, Canadians are forced to wait twice as long as doctors believe is medically advisable.

Canada’s restrictive policies have also reduced the number of various types of health professionals, limited the availability of advanced equipment and severely restricted the prescription drug choices. Consider that even after Health Canada certifies a new drug, it takes over a year for that drug to actually reach the patients who need it. Between 2004 and 2005, it took an average of 439 days for provinces to receive reimbursement for drugs, forcing patients to wait months for necessary medications.

The list could go on, but it need not. We get the picture. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

The answer lies in the marketplace. Among the more promising proposals currently before Congress is the Health Care Choice Act. The Act would allow individuals to compare and purchase health insurance across state lines. This is a very important, if often misunderstood, way of reducing health care costs. Here’s a quick primer: Because health care is primarily regulated at the state level, states can force providers to cover services and procedures (e.g., chiropractic care or fertility treatments) regardless of necessity or patient demand. Insurance companies then pass these higher costs along to every consumer, regardless of whether they want or need coverage for such procedures.

A more efficient system would allow individuals to select the health care plans of their choice. Such a plan recognizes that a 20 year old male typically has very different medical needs than a 60 year old woman. Freeing consumers to select a health care plan that meets their needs and budget, even if it is in a different state, is a common sense solution that would ease the budget crunch facing many American families. And, thankfully, the Health Care Choice Act is just one of many promising ways in which we can address our health care needs without burdening our children with another entitlement that we can’t afford.

In the end, our financial and medical futures are simply too important to be left exclusively to government control. Few people know this lesson better than Canadians themselves. Just ask the many pregnant Canadians who are forced to travel to the U.S. to deliver their children because their country has—wait for it—too few hospital beds.

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