- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

Richard Baker is known as a critic of the Canadian health care system, but he’s the first to acknowledge that it represents a real bargain for those with routine afflictions.

“In Canada, if your wife is pregnant, you have great prenatal care, great postnatal care, and the delivery is free. If you have the flu, your exam is free. If you break a leg, you can go to the emergency ward, and they’ll set it immediately,” Mr. Baker said.

The trouble starts when patients need treatment that isn’t so routine. That’s where Mr. Baker comes in. A British Columbia medical broker, he takes patients who find themselves on long waiting lists for procedures such as MRIs and surgeries, and connects them with specialists who can handle their cases immediately.

Most of the time, his clients wind up in the United States - and business is booming.

“That’s what Americans need to know about the Canadian system,” Mr. Baker said. “It’s not that we have poor-quality health care - the quality is perfectly good. It’s that we have poor access to health care.”

Mr. Baker, founder of Timely Medical Alternatives, is among the featured speakers at a conference Monday in Vancouver, British Columbia, aimed at exposing weaknesses in the Canadian single-payer system. The event, billed as a one-day fact-finding trip, is sponsored by the Independence Institute, a Colorado-based free-market think tank that has opposed the Obama administration’s push for a public option in U.S. health care.

“The idea is to look at real human stories about how the public option treats people with serious medical conditions,” said Independence Institute President Jon Caldara. “If we’re moving toward the public option, we ought to know what it looks like.”

Scheduled participants include Cheryl Baxter of Edmonton, Alberta, who wound up traveling to an Oklahoma City hospital for a hip replacement, and Christina Woodkey of Calgary, Alberta, who had her spinal surgery performed by a Montana doctor. Both paid for their procedures out of pocket, at costs of $30,000 and $50,000, rather than wait a year or longer to undergo the same surgeries free of charge in Canada.

In Canada, the public and private sectors have moved to address the long surgical waiting list. In July, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach acknowledged the increase in wait times for hip and joint surgeries after deep cuts in the province’s medical budget, saying the government would soon address the issue, according to CTV News.

Private health care clinics have begun cropping up despite a Canadian law that makes it a criminal offense for a private provider to charge patients for medically necessary procedures. Doctors avoid breaking the law by going through a third party, such as Mr. Baker’s company, to collect their fees.

“The other way they get around the law is they say, ‘This patient has been on a waiting list for three years for hernia or bunion surgery, so it must not be medically necessary,’ ” Mr. Baker said. “On the other hand, if you have a life-threatening condition such as cancer, you can’t be treated in these private centers.”

Such clinics are increasing in number but still account for less than 1 percent of all surgeries, he said.

Supporters of the Canadian health care system remind naysayers that the majority of Canadians receive prompt, high-quality care at virtually no cost. Their neighbors to the south may opt to avoid treatment if they don’t have adequate insurance.

Canadian Sen. Grant Mitchell, a Liberal Party member who represents Alberta, spoke in Washington earlier this month to remind U.S. lawmakers of the Canadian system’s virtues.

“The reality is that our health care system costs less and delivers more, and each and every Canadian has health care coverage, regardless of their wealth or status,” Mr. Mitchell said in a statement. “Further, and importantly, it acts as a competitive advantage in international competition for international investment and markets.”

For Mr. Caldara of the Independence Institute, the issue goes beyond policy. His 5-year-old son, Chance, has Down syndrome and has undergone eight operations, including open-heart surgery to repair a hole in his heart.

Under a Canadian-style system, Mr. Caldara said, Chance likely would have wound up on a waiting list and could still be waiting for life-changing or even life-saving procedures.

“This is not about some wonky public-policy issue; this is personal,” he said. “This is about saving my son’s life.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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