Thursday, May 06, 2004

HEU strike a sympton of Canada's collapsing health care system

Canada’s health care system is not only sick, it is dying. More specifically it is dying of old age. The problem is particularly acute here in B.C.

Having travelled to every province in Canada as well as the Yukon, when it comes to having a benign climate nothing beats beautiful British Columbia. Believe me anyone who has lived in Manitoba knows they only have two seasons, with one being hot and infested with mosquitoes and the other being bitterly cold and marked by blizzards.

Ever spent a summer in Toronto? The muggy air makes you feel like someone dipped a rag in a bog and then wiped it across your face. As for Newfoundland it has lots of character but thanks to the salt laden Atlantic gales you can measure the life expectancy of your vehicle in months rather than years.

So when it comes time to retire nothing beats good old B.C. The problem is that many of the fine elderly folk retiring here spent all their healthy working years paying taxes to some other province but are now using up far more in health care services than they contribute each year in taxes. A fact which the Government of Canada makes absolutely no allowance for when it calculates transfer payments to the provinces.

And lest anyone accuse me of granny bashing let me mention that my dear sweet mother is 78 and lives in Penticton. I have nothing against old people; in fact I very much hope I live long enough to be one myself. But here’s the problem, an 18 year old costs BC’s health care system on average $800 per year, while an 80 year old costs the BC health care system on average $21,000 per year.

Now guess what is that fastest growing sector of BC’s population? That’s right, it is people aged 80 and above. Now add to this trend the fact that the front end of the demographic bulge called the baby boom are now approaching their retirement years and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the demands being placed on our public health care system are rapidly outstripping our collective ability as taxpayers to pay for it.

Let me put it another way, right now 40 cents of every dollar the provincial government spends is on health care.

Within 10 years it will be 50 cents and if current trends continue by 2030 it will be 100 cents. That means no money for road maintenance, no money for public schools, no money for anything other than health care. Of course long before then or health care system will have collapsed. In fact it is in the process of doing that right now. Oh and for all those who want to stick their head in the sand and believe that it’s all Gordon Campbell’s fault, let me remind you of the following: one of the first things the Gordon Campbell government did was put an extra billion dollars into BC’s health care system.

That’s right if good old Glen Clark were re-elected, the health care system would have a billion dollars less money in it. So why didn’t this extra billion dollars shorten surgery waiting lists, well mostly because it was promptly hoovered up by doctors and nurses in the form of fee and wage rate increases.

Now I’m not saying that the doctors and nurses didn’t deserve these increases, I’m just saying you might want to remember that the next time a doctor informs you that you will have to wait 14 months for your hip replacement and starts blaming the government.

But the rationale that led to the doctors and nurses receiving more money has also directly led to members of the Hospital Employees Union getting a 15% wage cut. In both instances these wage adjustments occurred in order to put them in line with what the going rate is in the private sector.

I have a lot of sympathy for the single mother who works as a janitor or kitchen worker who must now try to struggle by on 15% less take home pay or worse yet now finds herself unemployed because their job has been contracted out. But with the health care system in the midst of collapse, there simply is no room to pay lower skilled workers anything significantly above the going market rate.

The sad fact is that this collapse of our public health care system will continue regardless of who wins the next provincial election. It will also continue regardless of who wins the current federal election.

So is there anything, short of some draconian “Soylent Green” solution that will save Canada’s health care system? Well yes there is. First of all, notwithstanding the Bill Clintonesque denials by nearly all federal and provincial politicians the fact is that Canada does have a burgeoning private health care system. If you have a WCB claim and need surgery you will get it in weeks through a private facility while the rest of us wait months or even years. If you are wealthy or sufficiently desperate you can also make use of the increasing number of private surgical facilities that are being established in the Lower mainland.

So the first step towards saving Canada’s public health care system is joining the rest of the western world and allowing for the full development of a parallel private health care system. Right away that gets all the rich out of the queue and all of us less affluent folk get to move up by at least a few thousand spaces.

The second step is overhauling Canada’s immigration system and actively recruiting skilled and healthy young people to move to Canada. Whether they come from Latin America, Asia or India we need as many young people who are going to work, invest and pay oodles of taxes that will help prop up our public health care system and keep all the aging boomers as well as us Generation Xers feeling groovy well into our golden years.

The third and final thing we need to do is get serious and start focussing on economic growth. The raging grannies here in Victoria love to rage against things like offshore oil exploration and clear cut logging but they rage even louder when they find out that they have to wait over a year for a hip replacement. The two things are connected, no economic growth, no tax revenue growth. No tax revenue growth, no additional funds available to spend on health care.

But the NDPers amongst you will say, “but all we need to do is raise taxes.” Okay now if you actually think that this approach would work take your right hand and give yourself a good hard slap up the side of the head. If you drive up taxes you drive away investment, and as you drive away investment you increase unemployment and thus reduce overall tax revenue.

So to sum up, if you don’t want to see your mother or yourself sitting in a hospital broom closet when you are sick or injured you need to demand three things from your federal and provincial politicians:
1. Amend the Canada Health Act to allow Canada’s private health care system to fully develop.
2. Increase immigration and focus primarily on skilled (i.e. readily employable) young people.
3. Make economic growth and investment a top priority.

Please note that this column was originally posted at Medical News Today