Rationing in Canada Sparks ‘Private Option’ Calls

Published November 5, 2009

While House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) point to Canada’s government-run public health care system as a model for remedying U.S. health care inadequacies, the Canadian system is showing serious problems of its own.

In the province of Ontario, outrage is growing after a provincial government refused to pay for a drug that extends the life of colorectal cancer patients. The provincial government expects to save $9 million (Canadian) a year by denying its use by patients.

The decision came after an internal province survey showed that from July 2008 to March 31, 2009 Ontario spent $11.2 million (Canadian) on Avastin to treat 844 patients.

Inevitable Rationing

While the United States considers a national “public option,” Canadians desperately want a “private option.” Canadians face significant legal restrictions on obtaining private health insurance.

“This certainly is a good example of the dangers of the government option and of single-payer health care systems,” said David Henderson, a health care research fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California.

Henderson says Ontario residents are experiencing firsthand the dangers of government taking over management of health care decisions. Because of the provincial government’s ruling, those living in the province and suffering from colorectal cancer will now have to pay for the life-prolonging drug out of their own bank accounts—or if they cannot afford it, abandon treatment altogether—while still paying taxes for the government system or having done so before retiring.

‘Lifeline’ Cut

In a conference call with reporters after the decision was announced, Andre Marin, Ontario’s province ombudsman, said the government’s cutoff of this life-extending drug “verges on cruelty.” He called the decision “arbitrary.”

“For patients whose cancer has already metastasized, it stops their tumors from growing and prolongs their lives, at least for a while,” Marin said. “It is, without exaggeration, their lifeline.”

Private Insurance Restricted

Whereas lawsuits in other provinces have opened up greater freedom for purchasing insurance, Ontario is still restricted, and those already diagnosed with cancer will find it difficult, if not financially impossible, to purchase private insurance coverage.

“What is cruel about this situation is the monopoly—the government claiming a monopoly on paying for health care and then not paying,” Henderson said.

“They tell Canadians: ‘We are going to pay and we are not going to allow you to legally pay … and oh, by the way, we won’t be paying [after all].’ That’s what is truly cruel about the Ontario decision,” Henderson said.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Massachusetts.