The Canadian health care system I disparaged

Commentary: single-payer regime up north represents a better way

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By Wendell Potter, Center for Public Integrity 

When I returned home after a two-week speaking tour of Canada and began catching up on news about Obamacare, I was angry and upset, and not just at politicians and special interests that benefit from deception-based PR tactics. I was — and still am — mostly angry and upset with myself. And I know I always will be.

Over the course of a two-decade career as a health insurance executive, I spent hours and hours implementing my industry’s ongoing propaganda campaign to mislead people about the Canadian health care system. We spread horror stories about “rationed care” and long waiting times for medically necessary care. Our anecdotes were not at all representative of most Canadians’ experiences, but we spent millions of dollars to persuade Americans that they were.

At every stop between Halifax and Vancouver this month, I explained how the United States had achieved the dubious distinction of having both the most expensive health care system on the planet and also one of the most inequitable. While Canadian lawmakers in the 1960s were implementing a partnership between the federal and provincial governments to create the country’s publicly funded universal health insurance system — known as Medicare — our lawmakers in Washington were establishing America’s own single-payer Medicare program, but only for folks 65 and older and some younger disabled people. Congress also created the federal and state-administered Medicaid program for the nation’s poor.

Ever since, most of the rest of us have had to deal with private insurance companies and pay whatever they felt like charging us for coverage. Canadians are also paying more for coverage these days because of medical inflation and an aging population, but not nearly as much more as we in the U.S. are paying. Just about everybody in every audience I stood before gasped when I told them that health insurance premiums in the U.S. increased 131 percent between 1999 and 2009 — the main reason why 50 million of us were uninsured at the end of the last decade — and that by 2013 the average employer-based family policy cost $16,351.

At one stop in Toronto, I was asked if there was anything about the U.S. system that Canadians should consider adopting. I was stumped. I noted that while we had some of the world’s best doctors and hospitals, they were in many cases off-limits to millions of Americans, many of whom were uninsured because of preexisting conditions that made them “uninsurable” in the eyes of private insurance companies.

Later, on reflection, I realized I should have mentioned some aspects of our Medicare system and our other single-payer program — the Veterans Health Administration — both of which consistently out-perform private insurers in customer satisfaction surveys.

The two aspects of our Medicare system worth emulating are: (1) the fact that it’s a federal arrangement, meaning that benefits and services do not vary from state to state, and (2) the prescription drug benefit (Medicare Part D) that Congress added a few years ago. The Canadian Medicare program is akin to our Medicaid program in that the provinces have broad latitude in administering benefits and services. As a consequence, Albertans’ experience with Medicare can be quite different from that of Newfoundlanders. And the Canadian Medicare program still does not cover medications. Canadians have to buy private insurance for their prescriptions. Consumer advocates there continue to push for the adoption of a nationwide drug benefit.

As for the Veterans Health Administration, which owns and operates its own hospitals, it not only gets higher customer-service scores than private hospitals, it is frequently cited for better health outcomes. For example, the RAND Corporation found in a 2004 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that the VHA outperformed all other sectors of the U.S. health care system in 294 measures of quality.

In other words, Canadians should consider making their system even more public than it is, rather than more private.

I usually began my remarks in Canada with an apology — for all the misinformation I helped spread in the U.S. about their system, which, by the way, continues to have overwhelming support. I didn’t encounter a single Canadian who didn’t talk about their Medicare program with pride.

Back in the states, among the distressing pieces I read was a New York Times story last Monday based on interviews with Americans who said they had decided to remain uninsured either because they couldn’t afford to pay the premiums or had just decided to gamble with their health and personal finances.

Those are decisions completely unknown and unnecessary in Canada, where the per capita spending on health care is far lower than it is here and where people live longer.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.