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SUN NEWS COLUMN: Pursue health reform for the sake of patients

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Kim Purdy experienced a sudden, sharp pain in her hip around Christmas of 2017. Within no time at all, the pain had spread and eventually became so severe that her life was turned upside down.

The once active Albertan now had pain so severe that she could no longer walk her dog and had no choice but to circle parking lots several times in order to find a space close to the door – she simply couldn’t handle walking even moderate distances. Hosting her family’s annual Christmas dinner was another casualty. It was just too strenuous.

In total, Kim spent 14 months living in pain, all the while navigating Alberta’s health care system and waiting for surgery. But she wasn’t alone. Kim told SecondStreet.org:

“When I went to go to some of the classes that they send you to before surgery, I saw all of these poor old people in there in so much agony. You could see it. We’re all just in a line-up waiting for surgery … so nine, eighteen months, two years. I’ve heard worse stories than that even.”

Sadly, as Canada emerges from COVID-19, stories like Kim’s will become even more common. Governments postponed a reported 200,000 health procedures during the pandemic – everything from cancer treatment to elective procedures like hip surgeries.

Canada’s notoriously long waiting lists are becoming even more stressed now that it’s time to find time to reschedule all those postponed procedures.

But what Canadians should note is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

If health care debates could simply mature beyond the ‘our model vs. the U.S. model’ reflex, it would be clear to everyone that many other countries are providing better results than both systems.

The progressive Commonwealth Fund’s exhaustive 2017 report shows that Norway, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Netherlands all ranked higher than Canada while spending less as a country on health care.

Australia in particular has an interesting health care model. While all patients are covered under the country’s universal public Medicare system, patients are incentivized to purchase private health insurance.

For example, Australian families earning less than $253,000 CDN a year receive a rebate from the government if they purchase private health benefits (this rebate decreases as incomes rise).

At the same time, a family earning approximately $163,000 CDN each year or more would start to pay a small income tax if they did not purchase private health insurance (this tax ranges from 1-1.5 per cent).

Combined, the rebate and tax incentivize those who can afford to pay for private health insurance to purchase it, taking pressure off the public system.

Over in Europe, Norway’s system is similar to Canada’s, but with a key difference: the Scandinavian country allows both public and private health care options. Unlike in Canada, Norwegians can purchase private health insurance for services such as hip and knee replacements if they do not wish to use the public system.

As of 2016, approximately 10 per cent of Norwegians were enrolled in private health plans – many of which were covered by their employers. As in Australia, private health options help take pressure off the public system.

Make no mistake, no health care system is perfect.

But for the thousands of patients who have painful stories like Kim Purdy’s, don’t our elected officials owe it to them to pursue reform?

Colin Craig is the President of SecondStreet.org and is the author of the new study: COVID-19 Reinforces the need for health reform

This column was published in the June 19, 2020 editions of the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun and Winnipeg Sun.

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