Looking down on the upper 49th: America’s healthcare debate has sparked Canadian interest

American debate on a publicly mandated healthcare system has the media’s full attention this summer, and Canadians have willingly gone along for the ride. Both American and Canadian citizens have volleyed criticism and praise of our own Canadian healthcare system across the border. Healthcare has always been a touchy subject for Canadians. It is an oft-defended resource, regularly used as an example of our “Canadianism”; criticisms are not usually taken well.

Lately though, Canadians have got in on the fun of fear mongering. While citizens of Canada are nowhere close to considering an AK-47 as an acceptable form of protection while at a public forum, heated debate has occurred over the pages of our national and local newspapers as to the quality of the healthcare available to us. I heard many a listener call in to one of our other greatly treasured public resources, the CBC, to either support or blast our healthcare system. Both sides had plenty of reasons for their opinion.

While Canada’s healthcare system is not perfect, it is hard to imagine a healthcare system that would be perfect, and that would suit the needs of our entire country. President Obama being criticized by far right pundits in America for comparing health insurance needs to vehicle insurance only reflects a misunderstanding of how public health works, and an ignorance of the greater concept of public good.

Private health insurance, in many cases, is a subjective cash grab. Private companies can pick and chose what they will cover you for based on medical history, not medical need. Even in Canada, while we have basic health coverage for all citizens, extra coverage is still difficult to get for those with serious pre-existing health conditions or who are in an age bracket that is more susceptible to life threatening illness.

The commercials for life insurance during those reruns of the Fresh Prince of Bel–Aire are laughable in many ways, but the phrase “will accept you regardless of age or medical condition” must be heaven to many seniors in America. One American-cum-Canadian commented on rabble.ca – a public news site – that while living in the states she paid $920 a month for family health insurance with a $1000 yearly deductable. Now, living in Canada, she pays $92 a month and her family enjoys greater medical attention and greater freedom of choice regarding medical professionals.

Canadians hoist Tommy Douglas on a well-deserved pedestal for his influence on and foundation of our current healthcare system. The Alberta government’s recent decision to fully fund all Albertan citizens healthcare, regardless of income bracket, was heralded both by the party itself and the citizens whom the party governs. The security afforded by knowing your basic health needs are covered is more precious than I believe most Canadian’s can comprehend.

Monday, September 14th 2009 was the opening day for the renewed session of Parliament, and the question period echoed with what Canadians have been discussing all summer. Liberal Member of Parliament Rae questioned Rt. Honorable Prime Minister Harper today in response to the American far right wing attacks on our Healthcare system. Asking Harper if “he was proud of our healthcare system”, Rae asked the very question Canadians have been asking themselves since the debate began.

Are we proud? As emergency room wait times continue to skyrocket and surgery waiting lists continue to put many Canadians in significantly difficult positions, we continuously ask ourselves if there is a better way. Alberta seems to think so, occasionally offering up the thought that private healthcare is a potential alternative, and a two-tiered system continues to look like a distant threat.

For once, though, it seems that Canada has a real edge over our Southern neighbour. Our healthcare system is robust, the federal and provincial governments share the costs and that emulates the ideal of a healthy and productive society; we can paint the picture as rosy as we would like. Our system is not perfect, but I remain unconvinced that any system is. It is comforting to know that my family is protected if they fall ill, that if I have an emergency I can walk into any emergency room in Canada and receive priority service. If an emergency were to happen, I would not be denied care because my insurance company found a pre-existing condition that nullified my healthcare.

Evaluation of our system is important, and the longer the healthcare debate rages on in the south, the longer Canadian’s have to evaluate and appreciate our very own healthcare system. While healthcare may not by the sexiest way to represent our patriotism, I find it significantly nicer that the second amendment in the United States Constitution.

Originally published September 17th, 2009. Features section, The Meliorist, Lethbridge Alberta. Volume 43, Issue 02.

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