This post is a continuation of my discussion of foreign healthcare systems, and what the U.S. can learn from them… I’ve summarized one particularly provocative and outspoken Canadian’s opinion below:

Is Canada’s healthcare system a political monopoly?

Dr. Brian Crowley is the Founder and President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He describes the Canadian healthcare system this way:

Canadian Medicare operates in an unregulated, tax-financed, pay-as-you-go model. Our provincial governments are our monopoly provider. They not only pay for necessary care, but they also govern, administer, and evaluate the services that they themselves provide. They define what we call “medically necessary services” and pay for 99% of all physician services. They also forbid the use of private insurance for medically necessary services. They set the budgets for nominally private healthcare institutions. They appoint the majority of their board members and have explicit power to override management decisions.

Under these circumstances, no hospital or hospital administrator can be expected to take any responsibility or initiative because decisions will always be second-guessed by those in political power.

Before the advent of competition in our telephone industry, dissatisfied customers faced the massive indifference of a bureaucracy that took their business for granted, despite some theoretically powerful regulatory agencies. Administrators of the Canadian healthcare system likewise suffer no direct consequences for poor customer service. They aren’t even answerable to a regulatory agency. Accountability is a vague political concept which cannot be enforced in any meaningful way. Like all monopolists, Canada’s healthcare authorities abuse their positions of power.

Dr. Crowley argued that the provincial governments have no desire to measure how many people are waiting for health services, how long they’ve been waiting, or how many people leave Canada to get treatment south of the border. (He claims that the U.S. is Canada’s secret safety valve.) Apparently the province of Ontario contracted with New York State for cancer care for their patients when wait times became politically untenable.

A couple of years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the healthcare system violates Quebec’s charter of rights because it collects taxes, promises healthcare in return, forbids competing suppliers and then often doesn’t deliver the care. The justices summarized the situation this way: “A place in a queue is not healthcare.”

Canada-wide average wait times for surgery is 17.8 weeks, though in Saskatchewan, wait times for hip replacements are as long as a year and a half. That’s after a physician has ordered the surgery. Getting to see a physician in the first place is very difficult. Statistics Canada reports that 1/5 of Canadians do not have a family doctor.

In Canada, family physicians are the gatekeepers of the health care system. Patients cannot obtain access to specialist services without having a general practitioner referral. The doctor shortage is so severe now that doctors have begun resorting to lotteries to kick people off their patient rosters, (see Tom Blackwell, MD Uses Lottery to Cull Patient List,  National Post, August 06, 2008); and Canada is about to face a wave of retirements in the system that will greatly exacerbate the shortage.

As for the comparability of wait times in the US and Canada, Dr. Crowley suggests reviewing a letter from a U.S. physician published in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago (Susan Weathers, M.D., published April 30th, 2004). Dr. Weathers works in a county hospital and in reference to her uninsured patients she writes,

[The Canadian health care system] resembles the county hospital where I work. Our patients pay little or nothing. They wait three months for an elective MRI scan and a couple of months to get into a subspecialty clinic. Our cancer patients fare better than the Canadians, getting radiotherapy within one to three weeks. The difference is that our patients are said to have no insurance (a term used interchangeably with “no health care”), whereas Canadians have “universal coverage.”

Dr. Crowley suggested that the Canadian healthcare system has become an unresponsive monopoly though it wasn’t supposed to be that way. It was designed to usher in a “grand era of choice.” It was supposed to be a healthcare system in which people would be able to get all the healthcare they needed without having to “worry about the cost.” Dr. Crowley concluded that “some of the ideas bandied about in Washington will lead to the worst features of the Canadian system without that having been anybody’s intention.”