Building Together: Planning and Partnership for Health Care, the Environment, and the Economy | Wilson Center

Building Together: Planning and Partnership for Health Care, the Environment, and the Economy

The fight for health care reform in the United States is well worth the effort, said Jack Layton, leader of Canada's New Democratic Party (NDP), at a program hosted by the Canada Institute. The purpose of Layton's speech at the Wilson Center was to discuss ways for progressive leaders in the United States and Canada to work together to address the major issues facing middle class families across North America. His remarks focused on dispelling some of the myths and criticisms of the Canadian public health care system, and highlighted the reasons why universal health care coverage in the United States would serve to benefit the U.S. economy and improve the quality of life of millions of Americans.

Canada's Experience with Public Health Care

Layton reminded participants that it was Tommy Douglas, the first leader of the NDP, who led the charge to establish universal health care coverage in Canada beginning in 1947 as premier of Saskatchewan. By 1962, Douglas had successfully implemented a health care system that provided full coverage for all residents of Saskatchewan. This system was eventually adopted nationally, providing all Canadians with access to health care. Layton pointed out, however, that the road to universal health care in Canada was filled with fierce political battles, noting that Douglas' quest to reform health care in Saskatchewan took more than a decade to realize.

The struggle was well worth the effort. Canada's health care system has been consistently recognized as a model for other nations to follow. In fact, according to Layton, surveys show that approximately 85 percent of Canadians are satisfied with the nation's health care system. He stressed, however, that efforts to move forward with universal coverage in the United States will only succeed if a system is implemented that reflects American values.

Attempts to implement health care reforms in the United States will undoubtedly be met with the same type of fierce political opposition that Canada faced in its pursuit of universal coverage, said Layton. He cautioned that Americans should not fall prey to common critiques of Canada's and other nations' public health care systems, particularly with respect to cost arguments against universal coverage and wait times. In Canada's case, noted Layton, half of acute care patients are seen within the first six minutes of their arrival to emergency care, and wait lists for many elective surgeries are no longer a problem. In terms of costs, he said, the United States outspends Canada on health care. Canada's total expenditures on health care, said Layton, is approximately 10 percent of its GDP, while the United States devotes roughly 16 percent of its GDP toward health care.

Layton conceded that Canada's health care system is not perfect. He stressed the need for more doctors and nurses in Canada, and stated that close to 3.5 million Canadians are without prescription drug coverage and 5 million still do not have a personal physician.

Health Care's Role in Economic Recovery

A stronger health care system would mean a stronger economy for the United States, argued Layton. He maintained that Canada's health care system actually gives Canadian companies an advantage over their U.S. competitors. For instance, stated Layton, General Motors Canada spends roughly 8 dollars an hour less per employee than the company's U.S. branches, simply because Canada has a public health care system. GM has incurred annual costs of 5 billion dollars to provide employee health coverage, an expense that has contributed to the downfall of the U.S. auto sector, said Layton.

Layton also highlighted the economic and health benefits of focusing more national resources into preventive care. He noted that nearly 20,000 Canadians die prematurely each year from air pollution and criticized Canada's Conservative government for failing to take stronger measures to reduce its carbon emissions. Layton remained optimistic, however, that President Obama's commitment to aggressively pursue plans to reduce U.S. emissions may compel Canada to follow suit.

By Ken Crist