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The health care debate: Harris squawks, Chretien screams, Romanow racks up air miles

By Walter Robinson
web posted December 3, 2001

Do you remember as a kid when you fought over the littlest things with your best friend or siblings? Perhaps it was a toy, a TV show or who would sit in the front seat of the car with dad.

Apparently, such spats are not confined to kids. Over the last week, we have been treated – or is that subjected – to the sad spectacle of some grown-ups (although this is a debatable term) sparring like petulant children before our very eyes on the 10 p.m. news and in the daily papers. Their names are familiar to most of us: Harris, Rock and Chretien.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien

In a recent speech in Ottawa, Ontario Premier Mike Harris blasted Ottawa – complete with a whiz-bang PowerPoint show – for its historic and recent push away from the equitable health care funding table. In response, federal Health Minister Alan Rock and then Prime Minister Jean Chretien jumped on the Premier – in what can only be described as a WWF handicap match – in verbal response.

Fortunately for the combatants, it was like pro-wrestling, feigned outrange with only a few political bruises, but no one was really hurt. All will be ready for the next week's pay-per-view event. Sadly the spectators, in this case, Canadian health care consumers (read: taxpayers) don't fare as well.

While health care funding is no doubt important, the continued political focus over money is a convenient misdirect for politicians to employ to mask the real problems of medicare and the vacuity of Canada's health care debate. And Canadians from coast-to-coast know it and it's time we demand and end this political charade.

In September, the CTF released its most comprehensive study ever. Entitled The Patient, The Condition, The Treatment, a 140-page look at the history, present state and options for reform of our health care system. Now if only purported "health care journalists" in this country would actually expand their rolodexes, crack the cover of this study and read it, the debate on health care might be better served.

In short, three fundamental changes must occur if we are to build a sustainable health care system for the first half of the 21st century.

First, the Canada Health Act must be modernized. The current five principles (universality, portability, public administration, accessibility, and comprehensiveness) in the Act must give way to six new principles (an encompassing definition of universality, public governance, quality, choice, accountability and sustainability).

Second, structural funding and service delivery changes must occur. Big box institutional care should quickly give way to more ambulatory style care where possible, consumers must become more informed and responsible for a greater portion of their service demands (with income testing and medical condition exemptions), and each generation must start to pre-fund its future health care consumption choices just as we spread home purchases over a lifetime and pre-fund our retirement.

Finally, Canadians must wrest ownership of this debate away from childish politicians and established public policy surrogates (read: the usual talking heads) if we are to move beyond invective rhetoric, facile U.S. vs Canada distinctions (as if these were the only two countries on the planet from which to choose health care approaches) and eternal tension and conflict.

Yes, Mike, Jean and Allan's spats in the sandbox, and royal commish guy Roy's mega air miles jaunt through Europe make for easy TV clips and fill newsprint quotas. But feeding the media monster does not fix or improve health care for Canadians one stinkin' bit. Our health care debate is code blue and needs new political doctors complete with the crash cart of CTF and other ideas.

Walter Robinson is the Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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