I’m From Canada. Here’s What It’s Like to Live with Universal Health Care

Politics Features Health Care
Share Tweet Submit Pin
I’m From Canada. Here’s What It’s Like to Live with Universal Health Care

Shortly after my son was born, in late December 2015, he stopped breathing. Let me tell you: having the worst thing you could possibly imagine happen right after the most joyous, wonderful moment of your life is quite an emotional trip. It had already been a difficult pregnancy. My wife had developed gestational diabetes, which required weekly checkups where nurses could monitor our baby’s heartbeat for hours at a time, as well as regular consultations regarding her diet and caloric intake, so any potential harmful effects of the disease would be minimized. We also had to closely monitor her blood pressure and blood sugar levels at home, and eventually had to begin giving her twice-daily insulin injections. So, when the moment of truth finally arrived, we were both extremely relieved that his delivery went about as smoothly as could be expected. At first, anyways.

It was very surreal. One minute, my brain is flooding with endorphins and tears are streaming down my face as I’m staring in awe at this perfect, tiny little person, the culmination of this incredible 9-month journey; the next, a nurse notices something’s not right, snatches him away urgently, a loud klaxon starts going off, the room starts filling up with more nurses and doctors, who I notice are exchanging serious, concerned looks with one another, no one is answering our questions—it was horrifying. I still haven’t really recovered from it. (He’s fine, though. He just needed a few minutes to learn how things worked in the outside-the-womb world.)

Still, he needed to stay for two days in the ICU so the doctors could confirm there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with him. And once they deemed him healthy enough to be released and we were allowed to bring him home with us, he almost immediately turned yellow. He looked like a real life Simpsons character. So, we brought him back to the hospital where he had to return to the ICU for another few days of intense phototherapy to get rid of his jaundice, while my wife stayed with him day and night, as he needed to be on a very strict feeding schedule. The entire experience—which lasted about a week and a half but felt like years—was quite stressful.

So it was nice that during that entire period, we never had to think about what his several days of intensive care was going to cost in addition to the medical care we’d already received, or whether our insurance company would pay for all or just part of it. Once he returned to a normal human complexion, we simply bundled him up, left the hospital and never looked back (except to bring a gift basket to the incredible nursing team there). That’s because we live in Canada and, as such, enjoy universal healthcare. Of all the times in my life I’ve had to interact with the Canadian healthcare system, this was by far the most significant. But I’ve got more stories. It’s been there for me time and time again.

Sometime around summer 2006, I started to feel a little queasy, and then proceeded to throw up a few times an hour for about the next 12 hours or so. I threw up so much that I ruptured all the blood vessels in my eyeballs which, combined with my deathly pale complexion, cold sweat sheen, and inability to stand or speak properly due to extreme dehydration, made me look like a literal zombie. Eventually my two roommates brought me to the hospital, where I was admitted immediately after the emergency room nurse looked at my wretched state for about half a second. Have you ever really, really needed morphine and then gotten it? It’s terrific. After a few days of resting there and being rehydrated through an IV drip, I felt well enough to leave. I’m not sure that they ever actually figured out what specifically was wrong, but I never experienced anything like that again, so whatever they did, it worked. The hospital stay cost me nothing, which was good because I was an under-employed student at the time and would have had no ability to pay for it otherwise.

After my band played a showcase at South by Southwest in Austin in 2008, I ingested such an absurd amount of Tex Mex, BBQ and beer that on the 20+ hour drive back to Canada, my right big toe swelled up to twice its normal size, as if I was a Looney Tunes character who just had a comically large anvil dropped on his foot. I was trying to sleep on the floor in the rear of our beaten up Ford Econoline and every slight bump in the highway sent waves of excruciating pain from the tip of my foot to the base of my skull. I assumed I had gotten drunk and broken it somehow, as that was something that 2008 me could very well have done. So once we returned to Canada (since obviously, getting it checked out in the US was not an option), I went to have it looked at, and found out that I was one of the unlucky 2% of Canadians who suffer from gout. It’s embarrassing to admit this, as it’s a disease that’s typically associated with gluttonous, inbred monarchs, and I’m neither inbred nor a monarch, but it is what it is. Still, while it’s been a recurring issue in years since, if I ever notice any pain coming on, I can just go to the local free clinic and get a prescription to take care of it. No big deal.

One final example: while we were busy raising our son last year, my mom, a retired teacher who was the picture of good health, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was very lucky, as for women approaching 70, routine mammograms aren’t always given a major emphasis as far as medical care goes. But it was caught in the very early stages, which led to a second mammogram, then an ultrasound, an MRI, and finally a mastectomy and subsequent regimen of estrogen-blocking drug Tamoxifen. There are plenty of horror stories that get circulated about our healthcare system where patients wait so long on waiting lists that they either expire or seek treatment in the US, but in my mother’s case, this entire process—from initial checkup to major surgery—lasted two months.

This example is particularly important because it perfectly encapsulates why a universal care system is not only more humane than a market-based one, but also much more efficient. If my mother hadn’t had access to quality preventive care, she wouldn’t have found out she was sick until it was far too late, which would have meant significantly higher medical costs, on top of the reality that she likely would have died. That’s the definition of a lose-lose scenario, and that’s the kind of thing that makes America’s health care system the most expensive per capita in the world, while still not being close to adequate as far as actually meeting people’s medical needs.

I could keep going on, but the major point I’m attempting to make in all this is that any time I’ve needed the Canadian healthcare system to be there for me or my loved ones, it has been. And I’m not trying to pretend that we live in some kind of fantasyland socialist utopia. There are many ways our system could be improved. For example, while we might be able to see a doctor free of charge, we still don’t have universal pharmacare. When I was prescribed Adderall a few years ago—after the symptoms of ADHD I had been experiencing for years were beginning to feel unbearable—I was really only able to afford to purchase it with the help of the insurance plan I’m on through my wife’s employer. This is the same with counseling and mental health services and dental care. Our nurses are overworked, understaffed and don’t get paid enough. If you’re not seriously hurt, you might face some long wait times at the emergency room. The list goes on. These are all things that Canadians can and should be fighting to improve.

But for any flaws that happen to be in our system, not even the most conservative of Canadians would want to trade it in for anything else. And personally, I can still say with 100% certainty that I’ve never once felt an iota of anxiety with regards to whether or not I was going to be able to afford medical treatment. I’ve never once considered that a serious illness might bankrupt me or a loved one. I haven’t had to ration medication because I didn’t know when I’d be able to afford a refill, or had to choose between having a preventive examination for an issue I was experiencing or just toughing it out until it became too severe to ignore. If you’re an under-insured American, this concept might sound like paradise. But this is just the reality of life with universal healthcare. And there’s really no reason at all that Americans can’t enjoy the same experience.

In fact, if you’d like some friendly advice, I would say that you should regard any politician or pundit that says universal healthcare can never happen in America with extreme skepticism, if not outright hostility. They’ll tell you it’s too expensive, and hey, there’s no two ways about it: health care is definitely expensive. But aren’t we always being told that America is the wealthiest nation in the world? In the history of the world even? Somehow, whenever the drumbeats for war start up, there magically happens to be a spare few billion or so found, apparently just waiting to be spent. Whether or not the Republicans get their way and enact their cruel health care plan/tax cut, their intentions have been made clear and Democrats must respond by promising to fight for an alternative where no one gets left behind. And I’m sorry, but a policy cooked up by right wing think tanks which reforms and slightly improves a broken system but still leaves millions uninsured is simply not going to cut it. “It’s the best we can do” is not a winning political message, and if that’s all Democrats are going to offer in 2018 and beyond, they will lose, and any supposed left-leaning person or organization that continues to insist that such a system is impossible or not feasible is either severely misinformed or trying to sell you something.

Yes, of course the GOP control all the levers of power in the US government at the moment and they’re not going to be signing universal health care into law any time soon. But they’re certainly not going to be signing the “Market Stability and Premium Reduction Act” that the apparently progressive Center for American Progress is proposing either. We’re often told by Very Serious People that the American left should forget “purity tests” and that only pragmatic, incrementalist compromises like this have a chance of garnering support in congress. These delusional people seem to believe that we live in a reality where a single Republican will even consider one of their ideas, let alone vote for it, while it has been completely obvious to anyone paying remote attention over the last decade or more that this is just as much of a pie-in-the-sky delusion as the most outrageous, left-wing proposals. It’s important to remember that Obama’s ACA was itself an effort to put forward a sensible, bipartisan compromise that could unify both left and right, and he was rewarded for his efforts by being called a Kenyan socialist who wanted to murder people’s grandparents.

So, since any so-called pragmatic policy has precisely the same chances of political success as single-payer in the current political climate, and since Americans actually like the idea of universal health care and have repeatedly rejected the kinds of wonky, technocratic solutions beloved by serious centrists, the strategy moving forward, at least to this outside observer, seems pretty clear. If Democrats began to unapologetically fight for universal health care right now, it would be providing a clear alternative to the apocalyptic vision of America the Republicans are pushing and would be a winning campaign strategy. And there’s also the fact that it happens to be the correct thing to do from a moral standpoint, too.

Our taxes are pretty high in Canada. Particularly in Quebec. But it’s funny, once you can point to a handful of incidents where your tax dollars bought you a vital service that saved you massive amounts of pain and anxiety, paying taxes doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. And even if you’re in perfect health, Canadians across the political spectrum recognize that we’re not a series of individuals, but a society. We recognize our shared obligation to look out for each other, and we know that when we do, everyone prospers. So while our healthcare system may be imperfect, it’s been there for me and the people I care about for my entire life, just like it’s there for millions of Canadians every single day. And Americans can have it too, if they decide to fight for it.