Monday, July 9, 2012

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of medicare in Saskatchewan

By Retiree Matters Janice M. Bernier
July 9, 2012

When medicare was introduced in Saskatchewan in July of 1962, I was six years old and about to start Grade 1. When I look back, I am amazed at how much a child will absorb, remember and learn. Growing up in Saskatchewan during the health-care debates helped shape who I am today.

In the 1930s and 1940s, my dad's father operated the dray service hauling wood, ice, coal and other goods between farms and small towns. He also drove the horse and buggy in the summer or cutter (sleigh) in the winter to take the local doctor out to deliver babies or treat the sick. Dad vividly recalls both his father and the doctor being paid in vegetables, chickens, grain or other goods.

My dad's mother ran the local telephone office and besides regular calls, served as the central call for all doctor, fire, police and community emergencies. My grandparents eventually moved to Prince Albert, but continued to farm 20 miles south of the city.

When I was a child growing up on the family farm, trips to the doctor or the hospital were for life-threatening emergencies, to have babies, or to die.

I remember some major illness going through our family and everyone having to make the trip to the doctor's office in Prince Albert. I remember the receptionist saying it was going to be three dollars for each of us to see the doctor, and there were six of us kids. A visit to the doctor took a big chunk out of our family's monthly budget.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Prince Albert area was considered a hotbed of political activity. Dief was Chief (Prime Minister John Diefenbaker), and Douglas, Lloyd, Thatcher and Hjertaas were all well-known names.

Tommy Douglas promised a public medicare system in 1959, but left before it was implemented, to take up the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party in Ottawa in 1961. So while Douglas, the first leader of the provincial CCF, is considered the "Father of Medicare", Saskatchewan premier Woodrow S. Lloyd actually brought medicare legislation to the province.

Shortly after Douglas's departure, the Lloyd government introduced the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act on October 13, 1961. As the new premier and leader of the provincial NDP, Lloyd shuffled the cabinet and appointed former labour leader Bill Davies (Moose Jaw MLA) as the health minister and Allan Blakeney (Regina MLA) as provincial treasurer.

Dr. Orville Hjertaas, who worked at the Prince Albert Community Clinic, was a member of the CCF, and a Wheat Pool and Co-op supporter, and was also a key player in the fight for medicare. When doctors refused to participate in a special commission to administer medicare, Hjertaas was the only practicing physician in the province to step forward to serve.

It was left to Lloyd, Davies and Blakeney to turn the Douglas vision into a reality. The doctors went on strike on July 1, 1962. Lloyd and many of his cabinet members received personal threats and harassment. The government's decision to bring in 100 doctors from overseas and across the country, and the quiet return to work of many of the striking doctors helped end the strike on July 23, 1962. Allan Blakeney took over the duties of the health portfolio to mend fences and to make the new medicare program work.

In his biography, Blakeney noted that the political consequence of premier Lloyd and his government bringing medicare to Saskatchewan was losing the April 22, 1964 provincial election to Ross Thatcher's Liberals.

Although the Thatcher Liberals ferociously attacked the CCF over medicare, they did not repeal the Medicare Act when they came to power. They found other ways to attack the system.

The three-dollar fee my parents paid for doctor visits was Thatcher's utilization fee implemented in 1968. The fee became known as Thatcher's deterrent fee -- a tax on the sick -- and so named because it deterred most folks, especially the poor, from seeking the medical attention they needed.

The user fee was removed after Allan Blakeney became Saskatchewan premier on June 23, 1971. During the Blakeney years, I came to realize the importance of our medicare system when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

On this 50th anniversary of medicare in Saskatchewan, I celebrate the accomplishments of Douglas as visionary, Lloyd as implementer, and Blakeney as innovator.

Yes, it is amazing what a young child will absorb, remember and learn, and how our experiences help shape who we are today, and those things for which we are prepared to fight.

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