Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 8/31/2007 [Archive]

Uh-oh Canada - Opinion Column

Uh-oh, Canada

By Bill Steigerwald

If Canada's national health-care system is so dang wonderful, why are so many Canadians coming to America to pay for their own medical care?

Why is the hip replacement center of Canada in Ohio -- at the Cleveland Clinic, where 10 percent of its international patients are Canadians?

Why is the Brain and Spine Clinic in Buffalo serving about 10 border-crossing Canadians a week? Why did a Calgary woman recently have to drive several hundred miles to Great Falls, Mont., to give birth to her quadruplets?

It's simple. As the market-oriented Fraser Institute in Vancouver, B.C., can tell you, Canada's vaunted "free" government health-care system cannot or deliberately will not provide its 33 million citizens with the nonemergency health care they want and need when they need or want it.

Courtesy of the institute, here are some unflattering facts about Canada's sickly system:

Number of Canadians on waiting lists for referrals to specialists or for medical services -- 875,000.

Average wait from time of referral to treatment by a specialist -- 17.8 weeks.

Shortest waiting time -- oncology, 4.9 weeks.

Longest waiting times -- orthopedic surgery, 40.3 weeks.

Average wait to get an MRI -- 10.3 weeks nationally but 28 weeks in Newfoundland.

Average wait time for a surgery considered "elective," like a hip replacement -- four or more months.

Hello, Cleveland.

The Canadian system is horribly short on consumer choice and competition. But it isn't all bad -- if you don't mind waiting to access it. As health policy analyst Nadeem Esmail of the Fraser Institute said last week, it does "a decent job of saving your life but treats you terribly in the process."

Esmail says no one knows exactly how many Canadians go to the United States each year for medical care. His best estimate for 2006 -- a conservative one -- is 39,282. Whatever the actual number is, however, it is growing.

Clinics in Detroit and Buffalo market speedy MRIs, CTs or ultrasounds to Canadians which, by law, cannot be purchased privately in some provinces, including Ontario.

Ontario residents have three options: wait months for their free public MRI, travel to a province like Quebec where it is legal to buy one privately or travel to the U.S.

It's no wonder private medical and surgical brokers like Timely Medical Alternatives of Vancouver have sprung into existence. Rick Baker said his three-year-old company refers about 100 Canadians a month to U.S. clinics and hospitals for such things as MRIs and knee replacements.

Timely Medical's services came in handy for Lindsay McCreith, a retired auto body shop owner who was told in 2006 he probably had a brain tumor. He needed an MRI fast. But the wait time for a "free" public one was 4 1/2 months and it was illegal to purchase a private MRI in Ontario.

McCreith contacted Timely Medical, which got him an MRI the next day in Buffalo that showed he had a Titleist-sized tumor. Four and half weeks later, McCreith had received the brain surgery that could have taken eight months to happen in Canada -- if he had still been alive. It cost him $28,000 -- for which Canada's government won't reimburse him.

Stories like McCreith's -- and the downsides of Canadian and American health care -- will be exposed Sept. 14 by ABC's John Stossel in his "20/20" special, tentatively titled "Sick in America." Rick Baker hopes Hillary Clinton and her friends will be watching.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com.© Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved. Bill Steigerwald is syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. For info contact Sales sales@cagle.com (805) 969-2829.If you're not a paying subscriber to our service, you must contact us to print or post this column on the web

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