Southern Health

The University of Chicago recently concluded an interesting survey involving national pride.

Americans cited pride (in order of rank) their:

  1. democratic system
  2. political/military influence in the world
  3. economy
  4. autonomy
  5. science and technology
  6. military
  7. sports/entertainment
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Canadians cited pride (in order of rank) in their:

  1. healthcare system
  2. natural environment
  3. democratic system
  4. treatment of different groups within their society
  5. sports/arts/literature
  6. military
  7. history

I have often wondered why I sometimes feel like such a “stranger in a strange land.” Perhaps it’s because, although Canada and the USA share (in many respects) a common culture and history, we are quite different in terms of our priorities and what we most value. Maybe, as many scholars believe, the fundamental differences began with the formation of the two countries: as it has been said, America was born of revolution; Canada was formed through cultural evolution.

(I also find it interesting that, according to studies, significantly more Americans report that they go to church, pray and read the Bible than Canadians and more than twice as many Americans say that religion influences their political thinking. But I digress…).

As much as I would analyze my new culture if I had relocated to Brazil, Beirut, Japan, Germany or Botswana, so I do in the USA. I am just perpetually surprised that the two societies are so disparate in many ways. I’d not thought that that would be the case.

And now I will enter shark-infested waters by addressing an issue that is much in the news these days.

Note that the primary source of national pride for Canadians is our universal healthcare system. This is, perhaps, the area in which, as a Canadian-American, I am most often questioned. Some people ask about it in tones of polite curiosity: some in an oddly belligerent fashion. (The latter always confuses me somewhat for I cannot imagine the genesis of their anger. The subject of healthcare seems to be one that is guaranteed to inflame, incite, ire and just generally piss off Americans. Why that may be is anyone’s guess. The chances are that even this article will result in a barrage of grisly tales of the “My Great Aunt Ethel’s second-cousin twice-removed’s best friend’s son-in-law lives in Canada and was left to die on an ice floe” nature. Or I’ll just be called a “commie socialist” again. So be it).

I believe that I am fairly well-equipped to discuss the Canadian healthcare system given that if one adds up my 47 years of living in that country and the life-experiences of my family and friends, it amounts up to about 1,000 years of direct and anecdotal experience.

Fact: the U.S. spends more per capita on healthcare than any other nation in the world (while being the only wealthy industrialized country that lacks some form of universal healthcare) and yet, even with the vast expenses incurred, consider the numbers from the CDC’s Joint Canada/U.S. Survey of Health:

  • U.S. Life expectancy (male) = 74.8 / Canada = 77.4
  • U.S. Life Expectancy (female) = 80.1 /Canada = 82.4
  • U.S. Infant Mortality/1000 live births = 6.8 / Canada = 5.3
  • U.S. Obesity Rate (male) = 31.1 / Canada = 17.0
  • U.S. Obesity rate (female) = 32.2 / Canada = 19.0

Canada’s universal healthcare system results in the fact that Canada is fourth in the world in terms of life expectancy. The US is 31st.

How is it that the United States – debatably the wealthiest nation in the world – cannot (or will not) provide accessible and affordable healthcare for all of its citizens? The CDC released a new study that indicates that approximately 59.1 million Americans don’t have health insurance – and increasingly the people who can’t afford it are members of the middle class.

(Yes, I do have health insurance, by the way. For approximately $350.00 per month ($5,000 deductible) I now have, for the first time in my life, the bizarre (to me) experience of wondering if I can afford to have a health concern addressed. Last year – between an episode with heat stroke and a dislocated finger – I paid the $5,000 deductible…on top of the monthly fees. I am learning a foreign language comprised of terms like “co-pay”, “deductible”, “cost-per-test” etc.).

And I really shouldn’t get started on the matter of prescription drugs. Suffice to say that I take one prescribed pill per day (a garden-variety, low-dose item). In Canada, I paid $40 for 100 of these pills. Here I pay $57 for 30. That rather explains the vast number of Americans who buy their medication from Canada on-line, doesn’t it?

The oddest thing about the whole healthcare debate in the U.S. is the sometimes-bordering-on-hysterical fixation that many Americans have with the subject’s relationship to “socialism”? Why is universal heathcare considered “socialist” and not systems such as the police, social security, Medicare, fire departments, post office, libraries, road departments and so forth? I can only imagine how people would react if they summoned the fire department when their house was in flames only to have them refuse to help because the homeowner wasn’t covered by that particular fire-station. (By the way, contrary to statements that have been made to and about me and my place of origin, Canada is not a “socialist” nation. It is a parliamentary democracy).

Canada’s Single-Payer system means that there is absolutely no correlation between income, lifetime quality of healthcare and mortality rates. None.

It is less expensive even though it takes care of the entire population: 10% of Canada’s GDP compared with 15% in the United States. Canada’s healthcare system (which fully covers 33.74 million people) costs roughly what the private-sector health insurance companies make in profits in the United States while looking after less than half the population who can pay the premiums. And no one in Canada declares bankruptcy due to medical bills whereas ARP estimates that 50% of personal bankruptcies are due to medical bills.

And before anyone is tempted to expound on the “cost of living” in Canada, consider this from Canadian Social Research Links: “A two-earner family with two children making $50,000 a year in Canada would pay 15.2 per cent in taxes and deductions. An American family of four making a comparable $40,000 in U.S. dollars would pay 15.9 per cent. A Canadian family with two earners and two children making $75,000 would pay 23.6 per cent. A similar American family making a comparable $60,000 (U.S.) would pay 21.6 per cent.” It all balances out and the “in-pocket” money and expenses are comparable – but with the immeasurably valuable security that comes with knowing that you, your parents, grandparents, children and friends have all of their healthcare needs covered without fear for the costs involved.

Canadians are able to freely choose their own physicians and to seek multiple opinions. In 1995 my father began to feel ill. He suffered from a complex and mystifying range of symptoms. When we began to seek answers, the healthcare system immediately swung into action and he was immediately seen by battalions of superb specialists, subjected to countless high-tech tests, hospitalized and cared for in a timely, comprehensive and compassionate fashion for the next eleven years of his life. (He passed away in 2006 – a victim of a horrendous and little-understood disease called Multiple System Atrophy).

At no time did we ever consider money as a factor in his care. Not a penny was paid. This same healthcare story played out in my own life, my mother’s, grandparents, children and friends – superior, immediate, top-rank care at no direct cost.

Is Canada’s healthcare system perfect? No – and no one has ever claimed that it is. But it is, quite understandably, a source of great national pride. Access to state-of-the-art, accessible, and “free” healthcare is considered a “right” that should be afforded all citizens – regardless of their economic status in life. It is my very great hope for this new country of mine that someday such freedom, health and peace of mind will be available to all.

This is a debate that may well form the future of this country and its people – a debate that should be viewed not as a contentious issue to divide us but one that unites us as we strive towards a common goal: the well-being of the people – all the people.

Although this is simply my opinion (born of a life-time’s experience), you may now feel free to “shoot the messenger”…but let me check the amount left on my “deductible” first, please.

Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.