Industry Voices—Canada's cautionary tale on 'Medicare for All'

Canadian pharmaceuticals
Progressives will no doubt continue to tout Canada's single-payer system as an ideal model for us in the U.S. But, Sally Pipes argues, the reality is far different. (Shutterstock)

Proponents of "Medicare for All" claim that Canada's government-run health system delivers high-quality care for a fraction of what we pay in the U.S.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign website, for example, praises Canada's low costs for certain procedures. In a recent interview from the campaign trail, Sen. Bernie Sanders expressed amazement that Canadians "could go to the doctor whenever they wanted and not have to take out their wallet."

But a new report from the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), an independent think tank in Canada, should throw some cold water on those assertions. The analysis exposes the many flaws of Canada's health system—from long wait times to surprisingly high costs. Many residents of our neighbor to the north leave to seek better care abroad.

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Canada is hardly the healthcare paradise progressives purport it to be. It's imperative that we keep Canadian-style healthcare out of this country.

RELATED: Experts highlight the many cost questions around Medicare for All at hearing

The MEI report begins with a damning analysis of Canada's wait times. The median wait to see a specialist after a referral from a general practitioner is 8.7 weeks. After a patient visits a specialist, the median wait until treatment is another 11 weeks.

In the U.S., such lengthy waits are virtually unheard of. Americans wait an average of 26 days for appointments with specialists, according to a 2017 study of major metropolitan areas by Merritt Hawkins.  

The Canadian system also skimps on essential diagnostic equipment. The country possesses about 75% fewer MRI machines per capita than the U.S.—fewer per head than Turkey or Chile. Consequently, the median wait time for an MRI is nearly 11 weeks. In more rural provinces like Nova Scotia, it's a startling 18 weeks.

Even emergency care takes a long time. Among Canadian ER visitors who see a doctor, nearly 3 in 10 wait more than four hours, according to a 2016 report from the Commonwealth Fund. Only 1 in 10 experiences such lengthy waits in the U.S.

These long waits endanger patients. Consider the story of one boy in British Columbia who had to wait three years for spinal surgery to treat his scoliosis, according to the Vancouver Sun. That was far too long; it made the operation much riskier. Due to complications from the surgery, his lower body is now paralyzed.

Canadians don't just pay for care in the form of long waits. They actually have to cover a significant share of their health costs out of pocket. More than 2% of Canadians' household spending goes towards out-of-pocket medical costs. Americans' out-of-pocket spending is just three-tenths of a percentage point more, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That equates to a difference of only $15 per month for the median American household, according to MEI's analysis.

RELATED: Commonwealth Fund: A quarter of voters back 'Medicare for All,' but many feel uninformed on the issue

While progressive politicians like Sens. Warren and Sanders are clamoring to bring Canadian healthcare here, our northern neighbors are fleeing it. In 2017, Canadians made more than 217,000 trips to other countries for healthcare. They spent a grand total of $690 million on this care—or an average of more than $3,000 per trip.  

A small industry has even sprung up to advise Canadians on private healthcare options outside the country. Global Healthcare Solutions in Saskatchewan, for example, offers advice for patients seeking care ranging from hip and knee replacements to bariatric surgery to advanced cancer treatments. MedBrick in Quebec connects Canadians with care in Latin America, the Caribbean and the U.S.

Progressives will no doubt continue to tout Canada's single-payer system as an ideal model for us in the U.S. But the reality is far different.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is "The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care" (Encounter Broadsides). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

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