Long Waits for Health Care Are Costing Canadians Billions of Dollars

Published June 1, 2008

Excessive waits for health care services endured by Canadian patients have imposed huge costs on the nation’s citizens. That’s the conclusion of a study conducted for the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) by the Centre for Spatial Economics.

The study of medical wait times in all 10 of Canada’s provinces found excessive delays for four key procedures–total joint replacement surgery, cataract surgery, coronary artery bypass graft surgery, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans–cost the nation an estimated $14.8 billion in 2007. This in turn lowered federal and provincial government revenues by a total of $4.4 billion, the report noted.

Market analysts were not surprised at the study’s findings. “When the government runs health care, it cannot actually account for all the costs of waiting for care,” said John R. Graham, director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. “Why would it? The government does not suffer when patients wait for care for which they have been taxed but have not received.”

Individuals Bear Costs

Charles M. Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, agreed, saying, “When the government controls all of health care, they look for ways to save money, and the easiest way to save is to deny care or ration care through long waits.”

Rationing care by using waiting lists puts a heavy strain on an economy by incurring high costs through reduced worker productivity, said Devon Herrick, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. Herrick notes Canadian Medicare uses rationing by waiting because the cost of lost productivity is borne by the individual and employer, whereas the cost of actually providing needed care falls on the public system.

Excessive waiting for total joint replacement surgery was the most expensive byproduct of Canada’s health care rationing, at nearly $26,400 per patient. That was followed closely by MRIs ($20,000), coronary artery bypass graft surgery ($19,400), and cataract surgery ($2,900).

Private Care Is Solution

The report focused only on the waiting time required for an actual procedure, excluding other parts of the process, such as the time a patient waited to see a primary care physician for an initial evaluation and the time spent waiting to see a specialist and to receive the results of diagnostic tests. Even with those limits, the evidence caused the authors to conclude change is needed.

“It’s time to cut wait times by investing in health care,” the report concluded, “an investment that will pay dividends for patients, for Canada’s economy and for all Canadians.”

Herrick disagrees with the authors’ policy prescription, saying private care options would be more effective than increased government investment in the system.

“Canadians should be allowed to pay for care privately if they so choose,” Herrick said. “It is unconscionable to forbid patients from paying for care the public system cannot provide them in a timely manner.”

“Canada must allow its citizens more freedom to spend their own money on health care if it hopes to increase their productivity and quality of life,” agreed Graham.

“Unfortunately, the growth of government medicine in the United States is having similar consequences here: Massive government health programs and over-regulation have reduced Americans’ access to care,” Graham continued. “Unless the United States changes course, America will suffer the same fate as Canada.”

Sanjit Bagchi, M.D. ([email protected]) writes from India.

For more information …

“The Economic Cost of Wait Times in Canada”: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=23201