The question is debated frequently and fiercely: If you have the money, should you be able to purchase health care privately?
Here’s the question that should always go with it: What practical alternative do Ontarians have, as the population ages and demands on the system only accelerate?
Thursday’s provincial budget will be replete with pre-election goodies, but it’s a good bet none will be a permanent fix to the perennial wait times people face for a host of medical procedures, some routine, some vital.
A recent case in point: attempts by the Ottawa Hospital to direct some patients elsewhere for cancer screening. Burdened by long waits for what most would consider an essential service, the hospital briefly contemplated limiting, by geographical boundary, who could be screened at its facilities. This would be a contravention of provincial law and the hospital quickly recanted the idea it might turn people away. But that doesn’t solve the problem of agonizing delays.
In 2004, then-prime minister Paul Martin promised enough public money to “fix health care for a generation.” But while he dumped buckets of cash at the provinces, his plan only bought time. Public health care is far from fixed.
Canadians understand the limits of public spending: they private insurers are already paying for eye exams, drugs outside of hospitals, physiotherapy and other health needs. More and more, they must find ways to obtain care without anyone admitting it’s private. Many retirement homes, for example, informally alleviate the strain on our scarcity-plagued long-term care system by offering certain nursing and other health services to the frail elderly, at extra cost. People in pain who cannot wait months for an MRI sometimes direct their dollars to private providers. Canadians near the U.S. border quietly slip south for treatment.
This newspaper also recently reported on the rise of private health-care advocates. These registered nurses or others who have developed expertise on working through the byzantine nature of our health-care system charge privately to help ill people get the medical attention they need in a timely manner. In a system that creates scarcity for lack of public money, this is an inevitable, necessary service.
Should we allow people to spend more of their own money on their health care? Increasingly, it’s not clear we have a choice.