Canadian Health Care: A Reality Check on a Reality Check
For years, Canadians have feared the American health care system; now Americans are being told to fear ours
I'm a secret CNN fan. I just can't get enough of those talking heads with their gleaming teeth, wet-look lipstick and perfect coiffures. Even at 4 a.m., some gorgeous thing with flawless makeup (men and women) will be gushing about important affairs of state like Michael Jackson or that philandering governor from South Carolina.
Every once in a while, CNN will notice there's a country north of the 49th parallel that has some weird little customs, like parliamentary democracy or gun control. They then venture forth to do in-depth analysis of our quaint habits for the benefit of the enlightened viewers of, let's say, Kentucky.
Kentucky is to blame for the latest CNN investigation of Canada -- a "Reality Check" on Canada's health care. It seems the state -- known for fried chicken and racehorses -- is also home to Senator Mitch McConnell, a high-ranking Republican of impeccable conservative credentials. Senator McConnell does not like President Barack Obama's plan to reform health care, and he's decided to use Canada as a weapon to help him fight the battle.
As CNN reported, McConnell recently made a speech to the Senate referring to the "bureaucrats who run Canada's health care system" and using the Kingston General Hospital as an example of the horror of Canada's health care. KGH supposedly had waits of 340 days for knee replacement and 196 days for hip replacement. McConnell also fussed that Ontario's wait time for breast cancer surgery is three months. CNN did interview Dr. David Zelt, KGH's chief of staff, who pointed out the wait times are actually 91 days for hip replacement, 109 days for knees, and that these aren't the average wait times, but the time that nine out of 10 people have had the procedure. Many have them done much faster. For breast cancer surgery, the wait time at KGH is 23 days, across Ontario it's 34 days.
Both CNN and McConnell made a big deal out of Shona Holmes, an Ontario woman who claims she was forced by Ontario's health system to go to the United States for life-saving surgery for a brain tumour. She claims that in 2005 delays in access to treatment at home made it necessary to go to the Mayo Clinic in Arizona and pay $97,000 for her care.
In 2007, Holmes was part of a court case brought by the Canadian Constitution Foundation against the government of Ontario. The case challenges Ontario's "government-run monopolistic" health system that prohibits the sale of private health care and private health insurance for essential health services. It is still before the courts.
Holmes has become the darling of conservatives and the stop-public-health-care movement in the United States. She's testified before Congress, been on Fox TV as well as CNN, and her story is retold on hundreds of right wing blogs. She's now doing a nasty TV ad for Patients United Now, a Republican-led group opposed to Obama's reforms. You can see the ad at www.patientsunitednow.com. The group is spending almost $2 million on it to target politicians in Washington.
For a person living with cancer, the idea that someone's care could be unreasonably delayed is truly scary. It also doesn't reflect the experience I've had or the experiences that have been shared with me by so many other patients. Even CNN interviewed Doug Wright, a more typical patient in Toronto who is receiving very speedy treatment for his cancer.
Still, I found Holmes tale both compelling and troubling. So I decided to check a little further. On the Mayo Clinic's website, Shona Holmes is a success story. But it's somewhat different story than all the headlines might have implied. Holmes' "brain tumour" was actually a Rathke's Cleft Cyst on her pituitary gland. To quote an American source, the John Wayne Cancer Center, "Rathke's Cleft Cysts are not true tumors or neoplasms; instead they are benign cysts."
There's no doubt Holmes had a problem that needed treatment, and she was given appointments with the appropriate specialists in Ontario. She chose not to wait the few months to see them. But it's a far cry from the life-or-death picture portrayed by Holmes on the TV ads or by McConnell in his attacks.
In Senator McConnell's home state of Kentucky, one out of three people under age 65 do not have any health insurance. They don't have to worry about wait times for hip or knee replacement or cancer surgery -- they can't get care. The media household income in Kentucky is $37,186 -- not quite enough for the $97,000 bill at the Mayo Clinic. CNN didn't mention that in its "Reality Check."
As the debate on health care reform heats up the United States, it seems certain that Canada's public health care system will be used, or more accurately misused, in the battle for hearts and minds. For years, Canadians have feared the American health care system; now Americans are being told to fear ours.
© 2009 Ottawa Citizen