A top Canadian politician attracted national attention when he decided to abandon his country’s health care system, which has been suggested as a model for reforms in the United States, to cross the border in seeking treatment for a heart condition.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams traveled to the United States in February to undergo heart surgery. The 59-year-old millionaire is set to spend over three months in America recovering from the operation.
Sally Pipes, president of the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, calls Premier Williams’ decision “no surprise.”
“[Premier Williams] is a medical tourist; he went where he obviously felt he would get the best treatment and where he would not have to wait. He did not follow [political film documentarian] Michael Moore’s advice. He came here because in the United States we have the latest and best technology and treatments and very good health outcomes,” Pipes said.
Opposition politicians in Canada have raised questions about why Williams decided not to seek heart treatment in Ontario or Toronto, the heart surgery hubs of the Canadian health care system. Some are wondering whether Williams’ decision to leave Canada for treatment in the United States reflects an indictment of Canada’s health system. He is not alone in his preference for American care, however, Pipes says.
“[Premier Williams] is not the first. Belinda Stronach who opposed opening the Canadian health care system, came to America for treatment when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2007. Robert Bourassa, twice former Premier of Quebec, when he was diagnosed with multiple melanoma, came to the United States as well,” Pipes said.
Dr. David Henderson, an economist at the Naval Postgraduate School in San Jose, California, finds Premier Williams’ decision an example of “outright hypocritical” behavior.
“I think it is quite striking, an indication of the difference in quality between America’s and Canada’s health care systems,” Dr. Henderson said. “His decision also indicates the growing internationalization of health care. Just as Singapore, India, and Thailand are becoming places where Americans go as medical tourists, primarily because of lower costs, America is an important destination for Canadians who are desperate to avoid Canada’s rationing.”
Pressure to Increase Freedom
According to Pipes, about 17 percent of the Canadian population is on waiting lists for access to a primary care doctor, a fact that has motivated many legal challenges to the current system.
“The legal challenges to the Canada Health Act mean you are going to see increasing numbers of private medical clinics [like those in the United States] opening up in Canada,” Pipes said. “There are already a number of private clinics in Ontario, which are successful, and the government is afraid to shut them down. Other provinces are now bringing suit to the Canadian Supreme Court to be able to open private clinics too. Before long, [Canadian] premiers may not need to come here.”
Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.