Saturday, March 3, 2012

Our History and the Struggle for Medicare

By Michael Finley
Saskatoon Community Clinic
Winter 2011

“The Community Clinics began as part of the struggle for Medicare. We should not forget that struggle, and the opposition to public health insurance.” That, according to Dr. John Bury, is one of the lessons we should carry forward from the history of our Clinic. “We should remember that victories for social justice always require struggle,” he said.

Dr. Bury was speaking at a forum on the “History of the Community Clinics and Medicare” at the at the Westside Clinic on October 19 and the Downtown Clinic on October 20. It was the first of three Community Clinic 101 sessions planned by the Member Services Committee. The session featured reminisces of the early years of the Clinic from Betsy Bury, the first Member Relations Director and Health Ombudsman; Dr. Bury, who came to the clinic in 1963, just one year after it opened its doors; and Joan Bell, who was active in the early years of the Prince Albert Community Clinic.

Both the Saskatoon and Prince Albert clinics were founded in 1962 by pro Medicare doctors and citizens. When the CCF/NDP government introduced Medicare, opposition from the Medical Association and right-wing parties was intense. Dr. Bury recalled that when anti-Medicare doctors went on strike, only five physicians remained in practice in Saskatoon. The Community Clinics – 26 were organized in the province – were a response. The Saskatoon Clinic opened its doors with two doctors. Dr. Bury was one of several new doctors recruited in Britain by Dr. Sam Wolfe.

Anne Blakeney delivered her daughter at home because the hospitals refused privileges to Clinic doctors.Alan Blakeney, Minister of Health at the time, said more money was spent in the 1960 “Medicare election” by the American Medical Association (which feared the Medicare contagion might spread south) than by all the political parties combined.

Betsy Bury recalled the original days of the Saskatoon Clinic and the desire by the original founders to offer more than just physician services. She noted that right from the beginning the citizens and health professionals who came together to form the Community Clinics had a vision that prevention and health promotion as well as the involvement of other health professionals, such as social workers, was essential to ensure the needs of the community were being met.

Joan Bell recalled the scare tactics used by the anti-Medicare KOD (Keep our Doctors) committee. Father Athol Murray invited people at a KOD rally in Prince Albert to carry their guns, and threatened that “blood should flow in the streets” if the Medicare Bill was adopted. His attempt to enlist religion against Medicare was quickly countered by the work of prominent Catholic laywomen, including Mary MacDonald, an organizer of the Prince Albert Co-operative Health Centre, who came to be known as “Medicare Mary.”

Today, the Community Health Services (Saskatoon) Association has approximately 5,000 member households representing close to 10,000 adult members. But Dr. Bury told the forum that much remains to be done. He said the Clinic ideal is that health providers and patients should work together to look after the health of the people, not just treat disease. “We haven’t got there yet, and across Canada, there has been poor progress.”

Dr. Bury said that moving Medicare and the Clinic ideal forward is not any easy task. “The same people who were after us in 1961 are still there. They may hand out ribbons for breast cancer, but they would still like us to go away.”

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