Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Great Health Care Debate

WASHINGTON, DC – Would you rather get sick in the United States or in Canada? The answer depends, perhaps, on who you are, and how sick you get. If, for example, you are a third-generation Canadian with a family doctor and the connections to jump hospital queues for treatment, the Great White North might be where you’d prefer to feel under the weather. If, however, you lack inroads and require urgent attention, you may want to head south and pay for health care in the Land of the Free.

On June 7, four celebrity doctors, including former Vermont Governor and US presidential candidate Howard Dean and former US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, will argue the issue in Toronto as part of the semi-annual Munk Debates. Just prior to this event, four students from high schools in the area will tackle the same resolution. It says here that the students will present more cogent, circumspect cases than their older counterparts, but both debates will be streamed online so viewers across Canada and around the world can decide.

Press bookings have been brisk, especially for the eminently quotable Dean, he of the literal and figurative primal scream. As you might expect, Dean favours a socialized, single-payer system like Canada’s, but he was refreshingly candid in explaining why meaningful tort reform – without which, lawsuits abound in the American system – was absent from the recently passed US health care legislation: “The people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers.”

The fact that Dean is able to concede such a strong point augurs a robust debate. And one can be certain that the new American health regime, dubbed “Obamacare,” will get plenty of airtime on June 7.

Munk Debate moderator Rudyard Griffiths has opined that it was "downright impressive" to see Americans “survive” the overhaul of their health care system over the course of a few months. Well, yes, "impressive" in the sense that an exploding star or massive earthquake might impress a person from a safe distance. As to whether the United States will survive, no one seriously suggested the Republic would crumble the moment President Obama took his Paper-Mate to the bill. Rather, it was the enormous and indefinite expense of the measure, combined with the spectre of rationing and the forcing of citizens to purchase health coverage under penalty of law that brought protests in cities across America.

Indeed, that may be the most "impressive" part of the process – the way in which ordinary Americans rallied, peacefully, against a costly, freedom-squelching initiative for which they did not vote, and which members of Congress did not read.

One of the most eye-catching signs at the health care protests read, “If Obamacare passes, where will Canadians go for their health care?” An interesting point, that. Perhaps a single-payer set-up like Canada’s can exist only in proximity to an open market, as in the US, where folks who have the means and cannot wait for treatment often go – as Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams did recently – thereby reducing strain on the socialized system. Canadians are proud to have universal health coverage – but “coverage” and “care” are rather different things.

Whether Canada's health care system is superior to that of the United States is, at best, debatable – and debated, it shall be.


Theo Caldwell is the McLeese Chair in Debating.