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Canadian health care has a dirty secret

Rich Canadians head south of the border for the best care they can afford.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams listens during a news conference in Montreal, Oct. 20, 2008. Williams recently ignited a national debate about the quality of Canadian health care by opting for surgery south of the border. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — Near the end of the Winter Olympics, the premier of the small province of Newfoundland made a much-anticipated appearance at the Vancouver Games.

Danny Williams arrived straight from Florida, where he had gone in early February for heart surgery. It was his first public appearance since igniting a national debate about the quality of Canada’s health care by opting for surgery south of the border. He looked healthy and tanned.

“If I collapse up here, please drag me to Seattle, because the Canadian Medical Association won’t have anything to do with me,” he reportedly joked after taking the podium at a reception in honor of his province.

For many Canadians, Williams' decision to have surgery in the United States was no laughing matter. Williams has long been a staunch defender of Canada’s non-profit, government-insured health care, which covers all residents. But when it came to his own health, he went south of the border, where private care rules.

He might as well have publicly rooted for the U.S. to win hockey gold.

Not surprisingly, Williams became a poster boy for Americans opposed to President Barack Obama’s health care reforms, even though those changes look nothing like Canada’s system of public insurance, known as medicare, which covers medically necessary procedures (an explanation of Canada’s system).

At Obama’s bipartisan health care summit last week, Republican Sen. John Barrasso cited Williams as an example of why Americans should fear Canadian-style health care.

"That's why the premier of one of the Canadian provinces came here just last week to have his heart operated on," Barrasso told Obama. "He said, 'It's my heart, it's my life, I want to go where it's the best.' And he came to the United States."

Williams, a 60-year-old populist who has been running Newfoundland since 2003, did indeed put it that way.

“This was my heart, my choice and my health,” he told the Canadian Press from his condominium in Sarasota, Fla., where he was recovering from surgery. “I did not sign away my right to get the best possible health care for myself when I entered politics.”