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Country Profile: Canada

I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of parents to raise enough money. I came to believe that people should be able to services irrespective of their individual capacity to pay.
Tommy Douglas, father of Medicare, Canada's National Health Insurance system
Population 32,000,000

Government Constitutional monarchy based on parliamentary democracy

Health Care Model National Health Insurance

GDP 1.335T (2010 est)

% GDP Spent on Health Care 10.0%

Per Capita Income $39,600

Health Care Expense Per Capita $3,672

Health Care Expense Per Capita Normalized to Income of 50K $4,636

Life Expectancy (m/f) 78/83

Healthy Life Expectancy (m/f) 70/74

The health care writer T. R. Reid (The Healing of America) has described Canada's health care system as the paradigm for the national health insurance model. Its genesis goes back to 1910, when the Douglas family migrated from Scotland to Canada. A Winnipeg doctor chose young Tommy Douglas as the beneficiary of a new technique in orthopedic surgery, and a boy who had expected to limp through life suddenly had a normal stride.

But even then, the boy was troubled. Why him? Was it right that chance blessed one boy with health and left another crippled? The question gnawed at Douglas, and when he became governor of Saskatchewan in 1944, he instituted a hybrid form of the single payer model in which the government served as insurer while providers remained private. By 1961, every province and territory in Canada had adopted Saskatchewan's model. The Republic of Korea and Taiwan later followed suit, and in 1965, the U. S. Congress adopted the name of Douglas' model for the legislation that established Medicare. In 2004, a national poll named Tommy Douglas as the "greatest Canadian of all time."

  • Goals: Universality, public administration, comprehensiveness, portability, accessibility
  • Thirteen provincial and territorial single-payer systems varying approaches to financing, administration, delivery, and range of service
  • Eligibility for national funding dependent on meeting the five goals listed above
  • Heavy emphasis on equality of access regardless of income
  • High level of population health
  • Challenges: Aging population, medical inflation (especially pharmaceuticals), waiting times, shortage of health human resources
Canadian health care is organized around the federal government, provincial and territorial governments, and intergovernmental cooperation. Provinces fund hospitals, negotiate with physicians' association to determine remuneration, oversee public health, and may fund health research and evaluate new technologies. Intergovernmental councils and committee play a largely facilitative role, coordinating cross-provincial advisory committees and various national foundations and institutes.

Canada finances 70% of its health care services via a group of federal and provincial taxes, including an income tax, corporate taxes, consumption taxes, and targeted supplementary taxes called "premiums." The bulk of the remaining 30% comes from out-of-pocket payments and voluntary supplementary insurance.

Canada's primary care physicians serve as gatekeepers to the rest of the health system. Canadians are free to choose a PCP, and most choose based on long-standing family relationships. Recent reforms have extended selected primary care responsibilities to nurse practitioners. While the physicians typically work on a basis of fee-for-service, provinces are experimenting with alternative payment contracts based on such modernizations as 24/7 availability and telehealth applications for rural and remote areas.

In general, care has trended toward a discrete model wherein family physicians and community health facilities provide provide primary care, hospitals provide secondary and emergency care, and nursing homes provide long-term care.

Federal and regional authorities provide public health services, as defined by these six categories: population health assessment, health promotion, disease and injury control and prevention, health protection, surveillance (i.e., collection of health data to guide public policy), and emergency response.

The chief challenge facing Canada's health care system is well-known: Lengthy waits for diagnostic tests and non-acute surgical procedures and -- in some areas -- primary care physicians. In 2005, Canada's Supreme Court determined that the country's prohibition on private insurance limited access was therefore dangerous. The long-term effect on Canada's single-tier system remains to be seen.

Beyond that, Canada faces the vexing, worldwide issue of medical inflation. Its decision to address this by stinting on expenses has aggravated the issue of lengthy waits.

Despite issues with waiting times and mediocre survival rates on some chronic diseases, Canada ranks high in such aggregate indicators as healthy life expectancy, potential years of life loss, and survival rates from stroke. The 2005 court decision notwithstanding, Canada's commitment to equality of access remains the signature statement of its health care system. And it has provided an object lesson that Vermont may be taking to heart: Single-payer need not start at the national level. As T. R. Reid observes,
Universal coverage doesn't have to start at the national level. Once [Tommy] Douglas established free hospital care in a poor rural province and made it work, the demonstration effect drove other provinces to do the same thing. And once Douglas established his taxpayer-funded Medicare system to pay all medical bills in the province, the demonstration effect quickly turned Saskatchewan's idea into a national health care system that covers everybody.
WHO Ranking 30 (U.S. 37)

Click here to read more about Canada's health care system.  T. R. Reid's book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, includes a chapter on Canada.

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