Former Brooklin, Maine Couple Applaud Canadian System

by Tom Walsh
The Ellsworth American
Thursday, November 22, 2007

BEAR RIVER, Nova Scotia -- Along the stretch of Nova Scotia highway that leads to Paul and Gretchen Volenik's new home is a road sign that reads "Paradise, Next Right."

The Voleniks are convinced that's exactly where they have settled.

"We love it here," Paul says. "This area is like Maine was 35 years ago. We're just delighted every day that we are here."

Last spring, after first moving to Nova Scotia in 2005, the Voleniks put down permanent roots in the picturesque village of Bear River, an artists' colony not far from Digby.

Now living near Digby, Paul and Gretchen Volenik are enjoying all that rural Nova Scotia has to offer, including tax-funded medical care.

Through "Bear River Bargains & Books," Paul, 59, sells old books and other collectibles, while Gretchen, 56, devotes her attention to expanding the garden she's designing for self-sufficiency.

For Paul the cross-border move came after 35 years of living in Maine, the last nine in Brooklin. Between 1994 and 2002, he served as a Democratic state representative in the Maine Legislature.

Until term limits pulled the plug on his political career, Volenik was a tireless and vocal advocate for a state-funded universal health care system that would provide health insurance and medical care to every citizen of Maine.

That never happened. Ironically, as permanent foreign residents of Canada, the couple now have access to universal health care through Nova Scotia's tax-funded medicare program, a system that provides cradle-to-grave, unlimited access to medically necessary health care services.

"Paul worked very hard over eight years in the Maine legislature, fighting to get health care for everybody," Gretchen says. "Now we have it. It wasn't our intention that it would just be he and I, but we do have it now. And it's too bad that Maine, and the United States, doesn't have it."

Paul Volenik said he's studied the issue of single-payer universal health care long enough to know its doable in Maine. What's lacking, he feels, is the political will to scrap the existing multi-payer system, with its well-entrenched special interests eager to protect the profits inherent in the status quo.

"Through what was known as the Health Security Board, we did the most advanced study in the country on single-payer health care systems," he said. "The report that came out said that we could keep the current system of private delivery of health care but with totally public funding, folding in all of the health care dollars coming into the state, including Medicare.

"By adding a payroll tax, we could cover everyone in the state with not Cadillac coverage, but good, basic coverage -- better than most insurance policies -- for less money than was currently being spent in Maine on the total cost of health care. And that was keeping the private delivery system. We didn't propose going as far as Canada, which is not just publicly funded, but involves publicly owned hospitals and, in some places, doctors on salary. We didn't go that far, but we did prove we could cover everyone for less money."

As governor, Angus King Jr. threatened to veto any single-payer legislation, Volenik said.

When Governor John Baldacci took office, he embraced the Dirigo approach, which Volenik described as an "incremental" system that doesn't confront the issues that keep driving up the costs of medical care and health insurance.

"The Baldacci system and any of the other incremental systems that have failed in the past is like a train," Volenik said. "The engineer is driving the health care train, and he stops at each stop and picks up a few more people, maybe children, or a group of low-income people. But he fails to notice that the train is on fire and that people are leaping off in all directions, because the system is ridiculous.

"An incremental system doesn't work," he said. "Until you get rid of the insurance companies, until you get rid of the immense power of the drug companies, until you get rid of the inflated salaries of hospital administrators, you will never have an effective health care system."

Paul and Gretchen Volenik don't have a family doctor. The Digby region, like other rural areas within Nova Scotia, is enduring a shortage of doctors. Fortunately, they said, they don't need a doctor.

"We don't have a physician; we have a nurse practitioner, and it's the best medical care I've ever had," Paul says. "Instead of, like in Maine, going into the office for an annual physical and having the doctor see you for 10 or 15 minutes, every time I've seen her she's spent at least an hour, with real interaction as to your total medical situation."

Gretchen said both she and Paul have also required services provided through a small hospital located 17 miles from home in Annapolis Royal.

"Although we continually hear about wait times, we have not experienced that at all," she said. "When we went to Halifax to have physicals to become permanent residents, I figured we'll be there all day long, and that didn't happen."

Gretchen realizes the system isn't "free," that hefty income, sales and other taxes cover the $2.8 billion annual cost of providing health care services to Nova Scotia's 935,000 residents. She says she doesn't mind paying more than $4 a gallon for gasoline because she knows that fuel taxes help pay for Nova Scotia's health care system.

"It's a fair way to do it," she said. "Everybody pays those taxes. We all pay into it. It's not like the wealthy get the good health care, and the working stiff gets some kind of health care, but with big deductibles. And then there are the people who can't get health care. There are all these tiers in the United States. Here, it's the same for everybody, and we all pay."