Bernie Sanders lends star power to Ontario premier at health care talk
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders lent his star power to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on Sunday in Toronto, where he commended the province and the rest of Canada for a public health care system that he admits is “not perfect.”
The man who inspired millions with his social democratic message but ultimately failed to win the U.S. Democratic Party’s presidential nomination last year was introduced by Wynne at a packed event at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall.
Wynne hosted Sanders a day earlier on his fact-finding mission about the Canadian health care system, as he tries to win support for his Medicare for All bill. The proposed legislation aims to create a tax-funded single-payer health insurance system for all Americans.
The premier noted in her introduction that Ontario’s single-payer system achieves higher survival rates for cancer patients, longer average life expectancies and a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S. system, and that it does so at “about half as much” cost per capita.
“We take tremendous pride in that,” Wynne said. “But you and I know we don’t have all the answers,” she added. “There is always more that we can do.”
Wynne took the opportunity to outline some of the promises her Liberal government has made as it heads toward an election expected in mid-2018, including free medication for people under age 25, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, covering the cost of university and college tuition for some students and increasing child care spaces.
She said Sanders has shown a life-long commitment to “levelling the playing field,” adding that’s “what government exists to do -- to make sure that people have what they need and to do the things that people can’t do for themselves.”
“His relentless advocacy should remind us all that the strong vibrant promise that we live in today didn’t happen by chance,” Wynne added. “It’s not an accident. It’s been very intentional, generation after generation what we have built here.”
Sanders’ speech included a history lesson on the creation of socialized medicine in the 1940s, by Labour Health Minister Nye Bevan in the United Kingdom and in Saskatchewan by then-Premier Tommy Douglas.
“Their work did not happen in an accident,” Sanders said, echoing Wynne. “Bevan came into office as a result of a landslide victory of the Labour Party where working people all over Great Britain looked around them and said that human dignity demands that all people have health care. He did what the people of his country wanted him to do.”
“And the same thing in Saskatchewan,” Sanders went on. “(Douglas) was able to implement his program because his political party … won 47 out of 52 seats in the Saskatchewan legislature in 1944.”
“Real change always happens from the bottom on up,” he said.
Sanders again echoed Wynne by saying the Canadian health care system, for all it achievements, is “not perfect,” adding that “no country in the world has all of the answers and never will.”
But he said “special interests” who are not content to make “billions” are standing in the way of providing health care insurance to all Americans. He said people are dying as a result.
Sanders then thanked Toronto doctor Danielle Martin for joining him in the U.S. capital last month to help launch his Medicare for All bill, which he said would make health care a “right” and not a “privilege.”
He said Dr. Martin defended the Canadian health care system in a 2014 Senate hearing against Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who was “not tell(ing) the truth” and that she “did not take those attacks lying down.”
“She refuted him point by point and 31 million people have seen that video on Facebook,” Sanders said.
During the Q&A session on Sunday, Dr. Martin asked Sanders what Canadians can do if they want to help improve the U.S. health care system.
“I know that Canadians are well-known throughout the world as gentle and kind people,” he said. “Be a little bit louder!”
Sanders also said it’s a myth that wait times are “interminable” in Canada.
Not everyone agrees. The Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think tank, reports that median wait times for medically necessary treatments and procedures like oncology and surgery averaged 20 weeks in Canada last year. Ontario’s were the shortest at 15.6 weeks. New Brunswick’s were the longest at 38.8. weeks.
The Fraser Institute argues that Canada’s unique single-payer system and its ban on doctors charging patients for medically-necessary services available in the public system contributes to longer wait times.
International comparisons also often rank Canada’s health care system near the middle of the pack when compared to other wealthy nations, which don’t have single-payer systems.
For example, the Healthcare Access and Quality Index published in British medical journal The Lancet earlier this year placed Canada 17th when it comes to death rates from diseases that are normally considered treatable. Canada was tied with Belgium, France, Austria and Ireland, but behind Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Italy and the Netherlands. Canada did better than the U.K. (30th) and the U.S. (35th), however, according to the study.
While Canada excelled in preventing deaths from things like appendicitis, tuberculosis, and vaccine-preventable illnesses, it did poorly when it comes to preventing deaths from neo-natal disorders and some cancers including non-melanoma skin cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Leukemia and neo-natal disorders, the study found.