Late last month, Senator Bernie Sanders traveled to Canada to see firsthand what the United States can “learn” from our northern neighbor’s single-payer healthcare system.
The pied piper of single-payer praised the Canadian system profusely, declaring that there is not “any debate” about whether “the quality of care is as good or better than the United States.”
This rationing of care is by design. In Canada, health care is free at the point of service. That means people pay nothing when they visit the doctor.
Since Canadian health officials can’t use co-pays or co-insurance to steer people toward the most cost-effective treatments and providers, they have only one way to constrain spending. And that’s by limiting access to medical services.
In Ontario, for example, the number of hospital beds has plummeted from more than 33,000 in 1990 to just 19,000 in 2016. Nationwide, six in ten nurses believe that hospitals don’t have enough staff members.
Consequently, wait times are terrible. According to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank, the median patient waited about 20 weeks for “medically necessary” treatments and procedures last year. That’s more than double the wait time in 1993.
In the United States, only 8% of patients wait more than four months for non-emergency surgery.
Canadian patients who need specialized care wait even longer. For example, the median patient waits nearly 47 weeks for brain surgery. One Ontario doctor estimated that the earliest that one of her patients could see a neurologist was four and a half years.
Patients in need of orthopaedic surgery wait more than 15 weeks to see a specialist, after receiving a referral from their general practitioner. Then they typically wait another 22 weeks to actually receive treatment.
Despite the demand for care that these waits signify, dozens of orthopedic surgeons are unemployed in Canada. “Scores of empty operating rooms (are) sitting idle every night across Canada,” wrote Adam Kassam, chief resident in the department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the University of Western Ontario, in an opinion piece for the Canadian Broadcast Company.
Waits are particularly long in rural provinces. Last year, the median patient in New Brunswick waited 39 weeks between referral from a general practitioner and receipt of treatment from a specialist. In Nova Scotia, the media patient waited nearly 35 weeks.
Even Canadians in need of emergency care must stand in line. Three in ten patients wait at least four hours before being seen by a doctor at the ER. Only 11% of Americans wait that long.
People seeking routine care fare no better. Last year, nearly six in ten Canadians were unable to secure a doctor’s appointment within 48 hours. By contrast, 55% of Americans are able to walk into a doctor’s office or schedule a same-day or next-day appointment.
This rationing forces patients to wait in pain as their conditions worsen. Consider the story of Jennifer White. The 26-year old Canadian suffers from intense seizures. After visiting her general practitioner this past February, Jennifer was told the earliest she could see an epilepsy specialist was more than a year later, according to CTV News, a Canadian broadcaster.
Or consider Angela Burgera, an art gallery owner in Alberta. She experienced severe hip pain that hindered her walking. After being put on a long wait list to receive a hip replacement, she shelled out thousands of dollars to seek treatment in the Cayman Islands, she told the Huffington Post earlier this year.
She’s not alone. In 2014 and 2015, a whopping 100,000 patients left Canada to obtain treatment elsewhere.
During his tour earlier this month, Senator Sanders called on Canadians to “be a little bit louder” in their defense of their healthcare system. “How is it that here in Canada, they provide quality health care to all people?” he asked.
The answer is simple — they don’t.