Time for a health care conversation

There has recently been renewed discussion of the state of the health care system in this country. Health care is always high on the list of topics of political concern in this country, but with the federal and provincial health-care funding agreements set to expire around 2014 there is now a sense of greater urgency — 2014 will come sooner than we think.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, health care accounts for 42 per cent of all government spending and costs continue to rise faster than other expenditures. As is evident from this high level of spending, as well as emergency room and other wait-times, our system is under strain. This is likely to only get worse over time as the population ages and places more demand on the system.

Politicians having been weighing in on the issue. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said in a speech to the Canadian Council of Chief Executives that we need to have a “serious, adult discussion” regarding health care, citing an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report which said that our current health care system is not sustainable in its current form. Liberal MP Keith Martin argues that we should expand private health care, allowing those who can pay for private services to do so in order take pressure off of the public system. And in response to public outcries, the Alberta government has just put in place ER wait-time benchmarks in an attempt to make the system more efficient, but their plan contains no real way to ensure these benchmarks are met.

Clearly, the status quo will not suffice. Something must be done to improve our health care system and make it more sustainable. Martin’s proposal could be effective in reducing strain on the system. But is it the kind of system we want? He claims that it would provide better access to quality care at a lower cost overall. On the other hand, though his proposal would reduce wait times in the public system, it does not seem just to allow those who have more money to get treatment more quickly than those who cannot afford private care. Whatever the merits of his suggestion, Mr. Martin should be applauded for his bold move of actually broaching the issue and for rightly pointing out that real debate about health care has been stifled.

Health care has a been sacred cow in this country. Merely broaching the subject of health care reform can lead to disparagement or accusations of wanting to turn our system into something like the American one. Liberal party health critic Ujjal Dosanjh, for example, said Martin’s comments were “irrelevant” and accused him of treating health care like a commercial commodity. Instead of engaging with the issues raised by Martin, Dosanjh merely dismissed what Martin had to say. The reality however is that not even Martin’s proposal for expansion of private care would turn our system American — such a hybrid system is used in many European countries. We boast about our “free” public health care system and as good a system as it is, cracks are appearing. Mr. Mulroney is right — if we want to continue to have an effective system which helps people and of which we can be proud, we need to have a frank, open, honest and no-holds-barred discussion about what to do.

We cannot continue to let things go along as they are, pretending everything is fine. Something must be done and the only way to figure out the best course of action is to fairly consider all of our options. The only way to do that is to actually allow discussion and debate about health care to take place.

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