Starting a conversation about how to reform Canada’s health care system has never been easy. Canadians like to cling to the notion that our publicly-funded system is an example to the world of how to best deliver medical services.
But for all the bluster surrounding the debate about health care in Canada, the truth is that many universal access systems around the world perform better than Canada's, and the ballooning cost of delivering even this level of care is not sustainable.
That’s why the Macdonald-Laurier Institute has, during its first five years in existence, established itself as a thought leader on Canadian health care – both in drawing attention to the scope of the problem and suggesting reforms for how to fix it. We call this project Medicare's Midlife Crisis.
A looming problem
As MLI research has demonstrated, Canada is facing a demographics squeeze.
Aging baby boomers will be retiring from the workforce in growing numbers in the coming years, leaving fewer wage earners to provide the tax revenues necessary to fund the system.
That’s not the only problem, though.
As a huge swath of the population gets older they will also require more and more health care services, placing the strain both on government revenues and health care budgets.
The question then becomes: How can provinces prevent the health care system from swallowing up much-needed money for other essential programs such as education and infrastructure?
But our fawning for medicare glosses over an inconvenient truth: Our health care system is not as great as we make it out to be.
"Our system is based on values, and especially values of equity and fairness that apparently transcend any assessment of the quality of care actually received", wrote Brian Lee Crowley, MLI’s Managing Director, in a 2013 commentary.
Our system regularly scores well below comparable countries when it comes to our health-care performance. Canada ranks below average in access to MRIs and at the bottom of the pack in electronic health records and wait times to see a specialist, just to name a few of our shortcomings.
Ideas for change
The Macdonald-Laurier Institute has produced a range well-thought out, concrete recommendations designed to improve the delivery of health care services in Canada.
Crowley argues that provinces need to take the lead on instituting reforms. Part of the problem, he says, is that in the early 1990s the federal government attempted to attach strings to the funding it gave the provinces for health care.
This meant that bureaucrats behind desks in Ottawa were left to anticipate the needs of physicians and patients working to deliver care in hospitals and clinics in St. John’s, Newfoundland and elsewhere across the country.
Nor is more money the answer. Escalating federal health transfers from Ottawa during the last decade meant that there was little incentive for provinces to innovate.
Former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice Mackinnon, a New Democrat, argued in a 2013 MLI paper that it’s time to do away with our system of open-ended demand. She wants users of the health care system pay for a portion of the services they utilize, and demonstrates the success of private clinics in her home province, the very cradle of medicare.
Too often, critics of changing Canada’s health care system equate reform with a change to a U.S.-style, “two-tier” health care system.
But there is lots to be learned from systems around the world.
Take the examples of Sweden and Switzerland, two countries profiled in a 2013 MLI paper. Author Mattias Lundbäck shows that a series of reforms introduced in those countries have resulted in more efficient practices that point the way to reform. The socialist-leaning Swedes have demonstrated that privatization and user fees for health services are not the work of the devil.
There are similar lessons from systems in Asian countries. A 2015 MLI paper highlights how examining reforms in Asian countries could provide insights for improving Canada’s underperforming system.
Authors Ito Peng and James Tiessen show how reforms in Japan, Taiwan and Korea – including greater competition between hospitals, introducing user fees and putting hospital specialists on salary – have controlled health-care spending while still offering top-quality services. The three countries have also succeeded in addressing aging populations, getting seniors out of hospital and into affordable long-term care.
The Canada Health Act
Many provinces like to hide behind the federal legislation that governs how they must deliver health-care services, the Canada Health Act, as an excuse for doing nothing to reform the system.
In many ways they have a point. In a 2012 paper, authors Jason Clemens and Nadeem Esmail argue the way the CHA is currently written is incompatible with a number of policy options that could help achieve affordable, high-quality care based on proven success in other industrialized countries with universal health care.
But there is more wiggle room within the CHA than you might think.
Lawyer Michael Watts, in a 2013 paper for MLI that clearly lays out what is and isn’t permissible, writes that there is room for provinces to experiment extensively with health care delivery under the Canada Health Act.
MLI’s work on health care has been featured in newspapers and other media outlets across the country.
Watts wrote a series of articles about the CHA that appeared in several New Brunswick papers, as well as another item that appeared in the National Post. He also gave a talk on how to improve Canada’s health-care system at a conference law firm Oskers, Hoskin & Harcourt organized in November 2014.
Mackinnon’s MLI paper was cited in media outlets across the country, including CTV, Global, CBC, iPolitics and the Huffington Post. Globe and Mail columnists Jeffrey Simpson and Margaret Wente also discussed her work.
Former MLI director of research Jason Clemens also took part in an Ottawa Citizen live chat on health care.
MLI’s health-care authors have also had op-eds appear in the Vancouver Sun, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald, while Crowley gave a speech on health care at a 2013 conference organized by the Canadian Association for Healthcare Reimbursement in Ottawa.
Other thought leadership
- In this “Straight Talk” Q&A, emergency room physician Brett Belchetz lends his perspective from the front-lines of Canada’s health-care system. He argues user fees are needed to discourage some of the people who he sees are abusing the system.
- This 2012 paper called for stronger intellectual property rules for pharmaceutical companies in exchange for research and investment commitments by companies. It was part of MLI’s series on pharmaceuticals.
- Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson contributed this “Straight Talk” Q&A on why Canada isn’t getting value for money from its health care system.
- Part two in our video series looks at barriers, both real and imagined, to health care reform.
- Part three in our video series looks at examples from other countries (and even one Canadian province!) on how Canada can fix its expensive and underperforming health care system.
- Part four in our video series examines how to make Medicare sustainable for all.