Healthcare and The Definition of Insanity

What’s wrong with Canada’s healthcare system? Dysfunctional systems, wait lists, not enough doctors, and not enough beds. Those are just the obvious ‘starters’ in a long list of problems that […]
Patients at Risk

What’s wrong with Canada’s healthcare system?

Dysfunctional systems, wait lists, not enough doctors, and not enough beds. Those are just the obvious ‘starters’ in a long list of problems that are keeping Canadians from accessing medical care.

Tossing more money at the problem will provide some temporary relief, but it can’t fix the one defining issue that prevents positive change in delivering healthcare services – ideology. Canada’s healthcare system is falling apart because it has been built on the faulty idea that only government can pay for, and deliver, healthcare (called single-payer universality), rather than on the more practical notion of actually providing timely medical care.

That’s why the federal governments recent offer of $46.2 billion for healthcare over 10 years comes with strings attached: Expenditures must maintain Medicare’s governing ideology of single payer universality – the very concept that has constricted access to care and created years-long wait lists for surgery, scans and specialists.

Ideology has been at the heart of Medicare since its inception and a little history will go a long way to understanding our collective foolishness in allowing this to persist.

From the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, Saskatchewan’s CCF party (the precursor to today’s NDP), led by Tommy Douglas, won multiple elections by promising ever-growing coverage of medical care that culminated in full universality in 1962. Along the way, the CCF had assured voters that such reforms were sustainable, and that party line/myth held true until 1964 when the CCF was finally ousted from power by the Liberals led by Ross Thatcher.

As related to me by Thatcher’s then-chief of staff, Thatcher’s priority was to figure out how to fund the Medicare monster that he had inherited. He had a fresh team of accountants pour over the province’s financial books, but all they could conclude was that the money to fund Medicare simply wasn’t there. In other words, the CCF had misled the Saskatchewan people by telling them that the province could provide sustainable funding for universal Medicare. Thatcher immediately fired the bureaucrats that had created the program and seemingly fudged the books.

Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was leading a minority government and looking for a wedge issue to gain full power in the next federal election. His top advisor, Tom Kent, offered universal Medicare as the solution, calling it “the jewel in the record of achievement” that the government could use to win a majority government. (Tom Kent, A Public Purpose, page 365)

With a minority government, there was tremendous uncertainty as to when a federal election might be held so the pressure was on to quickly create a national Medicare plan to present to Canadians.

Pearson thought it best to base the national program on the Saskatchewan model, so the federal government hired none other than the same bureaucrats that had just been fired for incompetence by Premier Thatcher.

Once more, they tried – and failed – to develop realistic costs for a national Medicare program. That was when one Saskatchewan bureaucrat came up with what Kent believed was a brilliant way to resolve the problem. In his 1988 book, Kent writes, “The government did not need to work out or legislate the details of a shared-cost program – it only needed to define, clearly, the principles of what it meant by Medicare.  Then it would contribute to the costs of any provincial program that satisfied those principles.” (Tom Kent, A Public Purpose, page 366)

That was how Canada’s beloved universal Medicare program began – with the delivery of medical services founded and grounded in an intangible ideology rather than in more tangible concepts such as costs, sustainability, delivery, and common sense.

And here we are almost 60 years later, still talking about making Medicare work under the erroneous presumption that only our cash-strapped governments can deliver, and pay for, healthcare. Approximately three million Canadians sit on wait lists; six million are looking for primary care doctors; patients are waiting long hours for care in Emergency Departments; and cancer patients are dying while waiting to receive treatment.

There should be no strings attached to federal health transfers other than that they go towards healthcare. We should be emulating the successful hybrid/complementary healthcare systems of Europe where the majority of care is paid for by governments, but both public and private sector professionals compete to provide care. Innovation and new models of delivering care should be encouraged. Patients who can afford private care should have it. Hospitals should be paid on activity-based funding that encourages more procedures rather than the current global funding that constricts care and the number of procedures.

Doing things the same way over and over and expecting a different result is what Einstein termed the definition of insanity. It’s time for Canadians to move past our collective insanity and realize that ideology is part of the problem, not the solution.


Susan Martinuk is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and author of “Patients at Risk: Exposing Canada’s Healthcare Crisis.”

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