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Observations

What health care really means

By David Wilson

I returned from a getaway to Florida last March tanned but sobered by a close encounter with the scandal of profit-driven health care.

On the second-last day of our vacation, I fell on a slippery boat ramp. The instant I went down, I knew I was hurt. A glance at my misshapen right arm confirmed it.

Paramedics arrived quickly and loaded me into an ambulance for the 35-minute drive to the nearest hospital. Riding up front, my wife called our insurance provider back in Canada.

A welcoming party of five or six emergency room staff was waiting for us. They wheeled me into a trauma room, gave me the once-over and took some X-rays. The attending physician returned in short order to say that my elbow was dislocated but could be reset without surgery. My wife signed some forms, an anesthesiologist knocked me out and the ER doctor performed an elbow reduction. After I awoke, an orthopedic nurse fitted me with a splint and a sling. The doctor then prescribed some painkillers and told us we could leave. From start to finish, the whole episode lasted under three hours and didn’t cost us a penny, thanks to our insurance. My wife and I joked that the experience felt a bit like drive-thru emergency care.

A few weeks later, I received a statement from the hospital. As this was the United States, I had imagined my three-hour outpatient adventure costing a bundle — maybe $5,000. I was laughably wrong. The hospital had billed the insurance company a stunning US$16,992 and settled for about US$11,000.

Curious about what the identical treatment would have cost the Ontario Health Insurance Plan had the accident occurred at home, I called Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. A staffperson got back to me with an itemized answer: under $1,000 Canadian, all in.

Universal, not-for-profit health care has been a fact in this country for long enough that we simply expect to be taken care of when we get hurt or sick. On the whole, we don’t worry about being bankrupted by medical bills or fighting with insurance companies to get coverage. Our health-care system is far from perfect, but it’s not until you bump up against a bureaucratic leviathan that profits from misfortune, vulnerability and fear that you realize we must never take what we have here for granted. Nor must we ever allow ourselves to be seduced by the ideological distractions that poison discussions about health care in the United States.

Health care goes to the core of what we value as a society. Canadians were won over decades ago to the idea that it’s better to look out for, rather than prey upon, each other. Health care is also a barometer of how rationally a society organizes itself. Over time, we’ve come to appreciate that it makes sense for all of us to share the cost of running a system that most of us will need sooner or later.

Several months ago, a friend’s son was diagnosed with cancer. He had finished a month of aggressive chemotherapy when he developed complications that required emergency surgery and followup treatment that still continues. My friend’s family would have been bankrupt long ago if they’d had to foot the bill.

My friend waited in a downtown Toronto hospital all night while the doctors performed the life-saving operation. He describes walking out of the hospital after it was over, just as the city was waking up. People were trickling out of the subway, cycling to offices downtown or trudging home after the night shift. It was then that the penny dropped: every one of those people had contributed to his son’s care.

He still has a hard time telling the story without getting weepy with gratitude. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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