Saturday, April 7, 2012

Doctor played a key role in historic medicare deal

Dr. Graham Clarkson, one of the architects of Canada’s medicare program, died March 13 at 87.

APRIL 7, 2012

Dr. Graham Clarkson
When longtime Edmonton resident Dr. Graham Clarkson died March 13, he took with him one of the last living chapters in a remarkable event in Canadian history.

The story of medicare included the likes of former Saskatchewan premiers Tommy Douglas and Allan Blakeney and Lord Stephen Taylor, the British physician who had helped implement the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.

But Clarkson, who died at 87, also played a key role.

“He never stopped advocating for better health care,” says Don Junk, a lifelong friend.

“Once medicare was accepted by doctors, he pushed hard for better geriatric care in Alberta and for shorter hospital stays and more outpatient services. It didn’t always make him popular with his colleagues. ... But he wouldn’t back down if he thought it would do some public good.”

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Clarkson went to war at the age of 17 and was nearly killed by a grenade.

During his recuperation in London, he studied Mandarin in hopes of serving with British intelligence in Southeast Asia. He ended up going to medical school in Glasgow instead.

June Clarkson was an occupational therapist when they met in that city. Shortly after they married, the couple moved to the Whiskey Trail in the Scottish Highlands. As “rewarding” as that experience was, says June, Clarkson applied for a job as a medical officer serving the Royal Canadian Air Force in Moose Jaw in 1956.

The timing couldn’t have been better. A few years later, Saskatchewan premier Douglas would introduce his universal health-care plan and he needed someone like Clarkson who had worked in a universal health-care system.

In short order, Clarkson became the first executive director of the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Commission. In that role, he advised premiers Douglas and Woodrow Lloyd and then-health minister Blakeney on how to implement what they had hoped to do.

By all accounts, it took a lot of doing. The province’s doctors wanted no part of the mandatory government-run plan. In a bid to defeat the CCF in 1960, the association they formed lost the war to oust the government but was slowly beginning to win the often-nasty battle for public opinion.

Leading the “Keep Our Doctors” campaign, Father Athol Murray declared at one point: “If the government doesn’t withdraw this act — the Medical Care Insurance Act — there will be blood running in the streets — and God help us if it doesn’t.”

When the doctors subsequently threatened to continue billing patients or leave the province altogether, Clarkson travelled to Great Britain to see if he could line up doctors who were willing to replace them.

As the dispute dragged on, Taylor came in on his own accord to broker a deal to the dispute, which was making headlines in Washington, New York City and London.

In an article written for the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association many years later, Taylor described what transpired on the day a delicate deal with the doctors was finally brokered by Clarkson and others.

“I got up that Monday morning and when I was having my bath, there was a knock at the door. In came Dr. Clarkson. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘It’s on. They are going to sign this morning.’

“I have seldom seen anyone grinning more widely,” wrote Taylor, “and I have seldom enjoyed a bath more.”

The appeal of Saskatchewan’s medicare program was not lost on prime minister John Diefenbaker. He had offered provinces 50 cents for every dollar spent on universal heath care. Then in 1962, he appointed justice Emmett Hall to chair a royal commission on the future of health care in Canada.

The rest, of course, is history. But June Clarkson worries that Canadians are forgetting what it took to get the universal health care they enjoy now.

“When Graham died, Allan Blakeney’s wife wrote to offer her condolences. She said that now with Graham gone and Allan recently passing, there is really no one left to remind us what happened back then.”

Graham Clarkson is survived by sons Ron and Bruce and daughters Hazel and Wendy.

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