President Obama and Congressional Democrats are inching the U.S. toward government-run health insurance. Last week's expansion of SCHIP -- the State Children's Health Insurance Program -- is a first step. Before proceeding further, here's a suggestion: Look at Canada's experience.
Health-care resources are not unlimited in any country, even rich ones like Canada and the U.S., and must be rationed either by price or time. When individuals bear no direct responsibility for paying for their care, as in Canada, that care is rationed by waiting.
Canadians often wait months or even years for necessary care. For some, the status quo has become so dire that they have turned to the courts for recourse. Several cases currently before provincial courts provide studies in what Americans could expect from government-run health insurance.
In Ontario, Lindsay McCreith was suffering from headaches and seizures yet faced a four and a half month wait for an MRI scan in January of 2006. Deciding that the wait was untenable, Mr. McCreith did what a lot of Canadians do: He went south, and paid for an MRI scan across the border in Buffalo. The MRI revealed a malignant brain tumor.
Ontario's government system still refused to provide timely treatment, offering instead a months-long wait for surgery. In the end, Mr. McCreith returned to Buffalo and paid for surgery that may have saved his life. He's challenging Ontario's government-run monopoly health-insurance system, claiming it violates the right to life and security of the person guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Shona Holmes, another Ontario court challenger, endured a similarly harrowing struggle. In March of 2005, Ms. Holmes began losing her vision and experienced headaches, anxiety attacks, extreme fatigue and weight gain. Despite an MRI scan showing a brain tumor, Ms. Holmes was told she would have to wait months to see a specialist. In June, her vision deteriorating rapidly, Ms. Holmes went to the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, where she found that immediate surgery was required to prevent permanent vision loss and potentially death. Again, the government system in Ontario required more appointments and more tests along with more wait times. Ms. Holmes returned to the Mayo Clinic and paid for her surgery.
On the other side of the country in Alberta, Bill Murray waited in pain for more than a year to see a specialist for his arthritic hip. The specialist recommended a "Birmingham" hip resurfacing surgery (a state-of-the-art procedure that gives better results than basic hip replacement) as the best medical option. But government bureaucrats determined that Mr. Murray, who was 57, was "too old" to enjoy the benefits of this procedure and said no. In the end, he was also denied the opportunity to pay for the procedure himself in Alberta. He's heading to court claiming a violation of Charter rights as well.
These constitutional challenges, along with one launched in British Columbia last month, share a common goal: to win Canadians the freedom to spend their own money to protect themselves from the inadequacies of the government health-insurance system.
The cases find their footing in a landmark ruling on Quebec health insurance in 2005. The Supreme Court of Canada found that Canadians suffer physically and psychologically while waiting for treatment in the public health-care system, and that the government monopoly on essential health services imposes a risk of death and irreparable harm. The Supreme Court ruled that Quebec's prohibition on private health insurance violates citizen rights as guaranteed by that province's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
The experiences of these Canadians -- along with the untold stories of the 750,794 citizens waiting a median of 17.3 weeks from mandatory general-practitioner referrals to treatment in 2008 -- show how miserable things can get when government is put in charge of managing health insurance.
In the wake of the 2005 ruling, Canada's federal and provincial governments have tried unsuccessfully to fix the long wait times by introducing selective benchmarks and guarantees along with large increases in funding. The benchmarks and the guarantees aren't ambitious: four to eight weeks for radiation therapy; 16 to 26 weeks for cataract surgery; 26 weeks for hip and knee replacements and lower-urgency cardiac bypass surgery.
Canada's system comes at the cost of pain and suffering for patients who find themselves stuck on waiting lists with nowhere to go. Americans can only hope that Barack Obama heeds the lessons that can be learned from Canadian hardships.