Bernie Sanders Goes to Canada for Health Care Inspiration

by Michael CorcoranTruthout | Report –

For decades, myths about the Canadian health care system have been widespread in the US. Conservative think tanks, the for-profit health industryThird Way Democrats and the dominant media have advanced falsehoods about Canada’s single-payer health system. In September, Vice President Mike Pence went as far as to cite Canada as the glaring case study “for the failings of national socialized health care.” All of this occurs despite the fact that Canada’s health care outranks the US health system by virtually every metric available.

“These are not misunderstandings,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders on October 29 in Toronto, during a weekend tour of Canadian hospitals. “These are very intentional lies [to] convince the American people that the current dysfunctional system we have now is the best that we can do.”

The tour of the Canadian health system by the country’s most popular politician is another reminder of how far the single-payer movement has come, in part due to the awareness Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign raised. The single-payer movement has been gaining momentum: Sanders’s Medicare for All bill in the Senate now has 16 co-sponsors (up from zero in 2013) and a similar bill in the House (John Conyers’s HR 676) enjoys a record 120 co-sponsors.

Sanders is seizing this moment as an opportunity to educate the public about the merits of his Medicare for All proposal. Hence his decision to take a delegation of doctors, nurses and reporters to Canada, where he spoke with politicians, providers and patients. The goal: learn how our closest neighbor can cover its entire country at just over half the cost per capita that we spend in the US for a system which leaves 28 million uninsured and about 31 million more underinsured.

US medical providers in attendance were very much taken by the fundamentally different approach in Canada, where, as one doctor told Truthout, the billing departments in large hospitals are the size of a large broom closet.

“What stands out to me is that Canadians are really unified in the belief that people should take care of each other. There is a real comradery in the country,” said Dr. Richard Bruno, a Baltimore physician who spent the weekend with Sanders. “It is a striking difference, and one we can learn a lot from.”

Why the US Needs a Stronger Single-Payer System Than Canada

Countering the widely perpetuated smears against the Canadian system is important. Still, it should not be ignored that Canada’s system has its problems.

“Canada’s care is vastly superior to that in the US, but it also needs to be more equitable and comprehensive,” said Bruno, who is on the board for Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). “It is not some sort of utopian nirvana.”

Indeed, while the US ranked dead last in a Commonwealth Fund report ranking 11 wealthy nations, Canada was ranked ninth. The United Kingdom, which has the more pure single-payer system, ranks at the top. Canada’s subpar rank is due to what Canadian writer Andre Picard has called “a definition of universality that is dated.” The major issues are the failure to cover prescription drugs and dental care.

This is recognized by organizers and groups in Canada, such as Canadian Doctors for Medicare, who push to strengthen the system with improvements like universal pharma-care.

Canadian organizers must also work to protect the system from austerity efforts. For instance, in British Columbia, the Supreme Court is hearing a case that could dramatically weaken the equity of Canada’s system by allowing some doctors to charge patients additional fees. “The challenges to Canadian Medicare have always been ideological and political. But, as of this month, they are also legal,” wrote Danielle Martin in 2016 about the case, which is still being litigated.

Martin, a physician and vice president at Women’s College Hospital, played a key role in Sanders’s tour, hosting a discussion with the senator following his speech in Toronto. Martin became quite popular in the US when she memorably debunked deceptive GOP efforts to smear single-payer in 2014 at a Senate hearing. The video of the exchange has been viewed more than 31 million times.

Given the onslaught of misinformation about Canada, one can understand the temptation to underplay problems with the Canadian system, especially to an American audience. Most critics, absurdly, call for dismantling and privatizing the system. But the problems need to be understood for what they are: reasons for more comprehensive single-payer health care, not privatization.

“Mr. Sanders glossed over some of the obvious shortcomings [with] only mild rebukes over Canada’s lack of universal pharma-care and dental coverage,” wrote health reporter André Picard in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “We would have all benefited from a more robust discussion of [Sanders’s] ‘Medicare for All’ plan, because it is, in fact, far more comprehensive than what exists in Canada currently.”

Indeed, Sanders’s legislation covers drugs and dental care — aspects of coverage that much of the media likes to portray as excess. While in Canada, however, Sanders stuck mostly to praising the Canadian system, save for the occasional reminder that “no system is perfect.”

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout