Posted on August 30, 2007

Canadian care costs less, insures all citizens and could help cut U.S. poverty, crime rates


By David Karwacki
The Salt Lake Tribune

(Editor, Salt Lake Tribune: The writer is addressing the question, “Should the U.S. use Canada as its model for health-care reform?”)

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan - Americans set their sights admirably high by seeking a Jeffersonian guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Advances in medical science and technology, especially diagnostics and pharmaceuticals, can certainly help them achieve those goals - if they can afford them. Many millions, unfortunately, find their life, liberty and happiness threatened because of illness and a lack of access to even basic, let alone advanced, medical care.

Access to universal medical coverage was introduced in my province of Saskatchewan in 1962 and was adopted by the federal government to apply to all Canadians in 1964.

Instead of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Canada’s constitution stresses “peace, order and good government.” We believe that government can be a force for good and in some areas - public health care being one - and can actually do a better job than private corporate interests.

For more than 40 years Canada’s Medicare has improved the quality of life for tens of millions of people, liberated them from the threat of unaffordable medical bills and made it easier for them to pursue their own definition of happiness.

Our Medicare system isn’t perfect, but then neither is democracy. We don’t think that’s reason enough to get rid of them. Besides, there’s more than just a political “feel-good” reason for embracing universal health care. It’s good for business.

I’m the owner of a company in Canada and another in the United States that distribute fresh produce around the globe. My Canadian company has three corporate advantages over my U.S. company and our U.S. competitors: healthy workers, lower operating costs and better worker safety through social cohesion.

In my experience, healthy workers are more productive because they take less sick time than those who don’t, or can’t afford, to take care of their health. Lack of health-care access is a barrier to preventive care. Those who ignore early symptoms of an illness because their credit cards are maxed-out end up being less productive and may have to leave the work force. Then the employer faces the expense of training replacement workers.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that total health expenditures in Canada amounted to 9.9 percent of GDP in 2004. In the United States it was 15.3 percent. And even though Americans spend more on health care, their life expectancy is, on average, two years less than Canadians.

Many U.S. companies enjoy a competitive edge in technology because of the R&D of the military industrial complex. In Canada it’s our single-insurer health-care system that provides us with a competitive advantage.

My U.S. company pays, on average, a premium of $9,300 per year for each employee to provide just basic medical insurance. My Canadian firm pays no premium. The costs are paid out of taxes and from resource royalties.

High health-care costs in the United States have been cited as one very big reason for what some people are calling “the outsourcing of America.” Witness the steady decline of the domestic auto-manufacturing sector.

Finally, I would argue that universal health care provides a social cohesion and increases our general security by helping to lift people out of poverty. A healthy population with access to health care is more likely to be productive and beneficial to the community. The rates of violent crime in Canada have yet to reach even a shadow of what is happening in America.

The economic reasons for universal medical coverage are clear. Just as important, however, is what Medicare says about our country and its people. We believe in the principle that everyone should have access to reasonable health care. That way life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is for all of us - not just those who can afford it.

DAVID KARWACKI is the leader of the Liberal Party in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and a distributor of fish and produce.