Dermatologist Elizabeth Rosenthal, a supporter of single payer health care, wanted to see for herself how Canada’s Medicare system worked. She was part of a New York delegation that took a trip to Toronto to interview providers and patients. Rosenthal wrote about her experience in Common Dreams:
The trip was an eye-opener. We met with physicians in many specialties — both academics and community-based physicians in private practice — and got to shadow them as they went about their work in their offices. We met with health care administrators. We talked to patients. We learned a lot.
Although some of us thought we were coming to the “promised land” of single-payer health care, where everyone has access to high-quality care regardless of ability to pay, our Canadian counterparts were much more blasé about their egalitarian, publicly financed system. They took it for granted. They don’t know anything else and are mainly focused on what is needed to improve it.
Although the Canadian system isn’t perfect (long waits for elective procedures and provincial inequities, among other things), Rosenthal says the majority of Canadians would never trade their system for ours any day. She says Canadians wonder why Americans put up with a system that is so cruel and unfair. One reason Americans have tolerated such a situation for so long is because most people who are insured don’t encounter the ugly side of dealing with insurance companies, unless they develop a chronic or life-threatening condition. Most people don’t really have to use their insurance except for routine doctor visits. And they seem to be largely unaware of how skyrocketing insurance costs are passed onto them from their employers, steadily eroding any pay gains.
Another reason Americans have tolerated profit-driven health care is because most people are unaware of how truly cruel our system is. The stories of the uninsured and underinsured – a large chunk of the population – are almost invisible in our media, save for the occasional news reports about free health clinics. Most people don’t know what it’s like to have to endure long waits in an underfunded clinic or an emergency room for basic care. And most of those fortunate to have health care don’t encounter those who have to go through that. There is a class separation in our healthcare system – a wall that is as high as it is impenetrable. In addition, there is a media blackout of single payer by the corporate-controlled media establishment. The major television and cable networks and newspapers either ignore single payer as a credible solution, fail to explain to their audiences how single payer would work compared with the current system, or relegate single payer to footnote status if it’s even mentioned in news reports at all.
A third reason that Americans haven’t taken to the streets over health care has a lot to do with the broken U.S. political system (and here in California, our broken state government). Polls have shown that when Americans are given the option to expand Medicare to everyone, the idea is immensely popular. Even the public option, supported by many liberal activists during the healthcare debates in 2009, was preferred over the inadequate Affordable Care Act that the Democrats and President Obama eventually enacted. Yet what the American people want is routinely ignored by lawmakers. That’s because money in the form of campaign contributions from the insurance industry talks louder than actual votes by constituents. This money is then used by anti-health reform candidates to buy commercial airtime to propagandize the public away from voting in their best interests. As long as U.S. elections remain funded by the monied class on the side of the insurance industry, it will be next to impossible to get through legislation that expands Medicare to everyone. That’s why the fight for single payer is now being waged in the states, like California and Vermont, where the influence of industry lobbyists is easier to confront.
If Canadians – and other nations with universal health care – understood the kinds of unique obstacles Americans face in trying to bring about change, they might be even more sympathetic. I wish all Americans could take the same sojourn up north as Dr. Rosenthal did. I wish people who either don’t know much about single payer or are skeptical of it could be bussed to Canada and taken on tours of clinics and hospitals. I wish Americans could talk one-on-one with Canadians about their healthcare system. The revelations and the resulting anger from those revelations as Americans find out how much they’ve been cheated will quickly lead to for-profit health care’s demise. Knowledge is the weapon the insurance industry fears the most.