Saturday, June 18, 2005

Healthcare Reform: Vision Impaired

The first major public opinion poll on healthcare reform since the Supreme Court's breakthrough court rulings shows that Canadians are both for and against private healthcare at the same time.

Quoth Ipsos-Reid:

A majority (64%) think that this ruling "will lead to two-tiered healthcare in Canada - one for the rich and one for the poor", and 57% would like their "province to use the Notwithstanding Clause to ban private insurance and protect public healthcare". Most (57%) believe "doctors and nurses will be leaving the public system to work in a new private system, which will cause shortages in the public system".

In fact, seven in ten (70%) agree they should be able to buy services from a private healthcare provider if they want to - 37% strongly feely this way, and more than half of Canadians see two potential positive outcomes as a result of this ruling:

1) 60% percent think it will lead to shorter waiting lists, and
2) 54% think it will lead to improvements in the quality and availability of the healthcare services that their family receives.

These poll results underscore the confusion about healthcare reform Canadians have, a confusion that none of the parties are dispelling in their public refusal to budge from an all-out defence of the current Canada Health Act.

People know that the system isn't working, just from their own personal experience. Everyone can name a family member or friend who can't find a family doctor, who's been waiting for months for an MRI or hip replacement, or who spent painful hours on a stretcher in a hallway waiting. Studies and statistics merely quantify our collective knowledge.

At the same time, decades of propaganda about the public healthcare system as a cornerstone of the Canadian identity have left people fearful of change. This fear usually expresses itself in worries about ending up with a "American-style" healthcare system, one falsely pictured as leaving millions of people without any healthcare at all, or bankrupted by catastrophic medical expenses.

(This National Post article provides a much-needed corrective to the myth.)

If our national identity were less negative, that is, being Canadian is "not being American," we could place our healthcare system in its proper perspective. It is, after all, a delivery system, not a sacrament.

The Conservative Party, however timidly, at least stands in principle for healthcare reform and freedom of access. It could also stand for public healthcare as originally envisioned by Tommy Douglas: a system to prevent people from being bankrupted by medical expenses for severe health problems. The two fit each other, hand in glove.

By moving people who prefer private access into a private system, the public system would be relieved of great financial burdens and could become again what it was intended to be all along.

We can offer real reform and assuage fear of change at the same time.

There's a great slogan in there somewhere about the Conservative Party being the true believers and defenders of Tommy Douglas' vision of medicare. I can't come up with it. (Neither could the communications team, for that matter.)

But it will be the winning one, if Stephen Harper will seize it.

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