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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.

Williams was suffering from a leaky heart valve. He did not want a sternotomy, which would have required breaking bones to access the valve. For a less invasive procedure with a quicker recovery time, Williams sought out Dr. Joseph Lamelas at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami.

Williams says Lamelas accessed his heart valve through an incision under his arm, a procedure known as the “Miami method.” The procedure is available in Canada, which has its share of world-renowned heart surgeons. But no one has done it anywhere near as often as Lamelas.
According to a spokesperson for Mount Sinai in Miami, quoted in the Globe and Mail newspaper, Lamelas has performed 2,000 minimally invasive heart operations. His mortality rate is far below the U.S. national average. And, he has trained more than 300 physicians from around the world in the procedure.

In short, for the procedure he preferred, Williams went to the most established doctor in North America.

“This is not a unique phenomenon to me,” he said, referring to Canadians going south for health care. “This is something that happens with lots of families throughout this country, so I make no apologies for that.”

To be more precise: To the extent that it happens, it happens with affluent Canadians.

Williams is rich. Before entering politics, he sold his cable company for hundreds of millions of dollars. His trip for medical services to the U.S. follows in the footsteps of Belinda Stronach, heiress to an auto parts empire, who went to California for breast cancer surgery in 2007 while an elected Member of Parliament. Before her, the late Quebec Premier, Robert Bourassa, went south for skin cancer treatment.

These are the public figures whose purchase of U.S. care made news. The number of wealthy private citizens who have done so is anybody’s guess.

Canadians are rightfully proud of their publicly funded health coverage. Except for the taxes they pay, the health care they receive is free. Canada spends less of its GDP on health care than the U.S., yet Canadians, on average, live longer than Americans. In the U.S., health care is a commodity to be bought and sold for profit; in Canada, it’s considered a human right.

No G7 country — including those like France and Germany, with public insurance systems at least as generous as Canada’s — restricts private care or private health insurance as much as Canada. For this, too, Canadians are proud. It’s a matter of fairness and equality: When it comes to health care, rich and poor get the same treatment.

But this national pride hides a dirty little secret: The rich, like Danny Williams, go south.