Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Medicare must not be taken for granted

By Pat Atkinson
The StarPhoenix 
Roy Atkinson
July 4, 2012

Medicare is synonymous with our Canadian identity. It has been so successful that we often take it for granted.

In Saskatchewan there are many whose lives have been shaped by the fight for universal access to health care.

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1962, I was living on the family farm west of Biggar. As a nine-year-old I was hardly aware of the political drama that was being played out across the province, but knew something "important" was happening.

In a sense our farm was at the epicentre of that debate, given that the Biggar constituency was represented by premier Woodrow Lloyd, who had just implemented Canada's first universal medicare program on July 1.

Most doctors in Saskatchewan were vehemently opposed to medicare and wanted to continue to be paid by their patients. They did not want the "government" to pay them for their services and so began a 23-day strike.

The response from the people of Biggar and surrounding area was immediate. On July 4, 1962, my dad along with other farmers, teachers and railroaders raised more than $42,000 to start the Biggar Community Clinic. They were going to recruit their own doctor.

As the strike wore on, doctors were recruited from the United Kingdom to provide health services. One of them came to the Biggar clinic, and others joined community clinics that sprang up across the province. Four of those clinics still exist, with the Saskatoon Community Clinic celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The introduction of medicare was the most divisive issue Saskatchewan has seen. On the one side of the fierce debate were most members of the physician community, who were supported by "Keep our Doctors" groups. On the other side were farmers, trade unionists, teachers and some small business people.

For the Lloyd government the successful implementation of the Medical Care Insurance Act was a matter of principle, one that it had been elected upon in the 1960 provincial election and one that had been a core tenet of the CCF government from its historic victory in 1944. Too many families had gone without a doctor's care because they couldn't pay, or had gone bankrupt because of healthcare debts.

As we mark this 50th anniversary we do so knowing that it was our province that had the courage to implement Canada's first publicly funded medicare program, and it was our people who brought this program to Canada.

John George Diefenbaker, a Conservative prime minister from Saskatchewan, appointed Supreme Court Justice Emmett Hall from Saskatchewan as chair of the Royal Commission on Health Services, which recommended in 1964 that Canada adopt national medical insurance. Saskatchewan's success with our medical insurance system was crucial to his recommendation.

The federal minority Liberal government of Lester Pearson, with CCF leader Tommy Douglas's support, introduced the Medical Care Act of 1966 with the four principles of public administration, universality, portability and comprehensiveness.

Fifty years on, many look at the fight for medicare as something from the past. I disagree.

Today there are those who believe that wait times for surgery and diagnostic tests can be fixed by moving these and other services to private enterprise, and having individuals pay more of their health care costs.

Others believe there needs to be continued reform, and these issues can best be addressed within our public system. They note that individuals already pay 30 per cent of the cost of their health care for services not covered by medicare.

I subscribe to evidence-based policy making - publicly financed, administered and delivered health services make the most sense in terms of cost and quality of care. To pass more costs to the individual increases disparities, while the overall percentage of GDP devoted to health care rises.

Continued reform of our healthcare system is imperative. Let's hope that our political leaders will be guided by evidence-based policy making and the enduring values of those that brought us medicare half a century ago.

We simply can't slide back to pre-medicare days when citizens individually pay more for their health care as a percentage of GDP, but get less coverage. That would be a betrayal of all that was sought 50 years ago.

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