Election 2008: Health care issue often ignored in campaigns

It’s nearly election time. The environment, education, and poverty have emerged as the major talking points, while growing concerns over the economy have certainly now topped the list. Yet sparse attention has been paid to health care, which ranked as the second most important concern for many Canadians according to an Ottawa Citizen article from September 25.

“This year it is a campaign about leadership and addressing crises – economic crisis. When we go to the polls we are thinking about health care as a main concern and issue, but no parties have made this a battle cry,” said Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

The Canadian health care system has many problems. One major concern is the long wait times that many people face for medical treatment. According to the Commonwealth Fund, 24 per cent of Canadians who visit emergency rooms wait four hours or longer for service. What’s more, simply seeing a general practitioner – let alone a specialist – may take up to four weeks, if not longer.

Canadian health care has also been criticized for the shortage of medical professionals in the system. Canada has 2.2 doctors per 1,000 people, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Health Data for 2007. This is below the OECD average of three doctors per 1,000 people. While the reasons for Canada’s doctor shortage are difficult to pinpoint definitively, the College of Family Physicians of Canada attributes three major causes: U.S. migration, the unwillingness of medical students to choose needed specialties, and the concentration of medical practices in urban areas, leaving most of Canada’s interior even worse off.

According to the Health Council of Canada, the federal government has not made improvements to the health care system that have been promised in the past.

The idea of a “two-tier” system of public-private health care has long-since been proposed to ameliorate the current problems. Proponents of the two-tier idea have argued that greater privatization would imbue the Canadian system with greater overall efficiency. Its detractors, however, see the two-tier system as unequally privileging those who are able to pay, while leaving the majority of Canadians with even longer queues and worse quality services.

Little, however, has been heard on any of these issues from the politicians vying for power. While every party has some platform on health care, the issue seems to have been relegated to the back-burner this year.

“Health care is not a driving issue. Politicians have figured out that playing political football in terms of health care is not the best thing to do,” said Maioni.

We must all be able to make informed decisions at the voting booths next week. Health care is only one of the issues, but an important one nonetheless; the course that is plotted for the national health care system by whichever party wins this Tuesday will concretely affect Canadians for a long time to come.

– with files from Nadja Popovich

Health care platforms, 2008

Conservative: conservative.ca

• Committed to public health care

• Specific policies: agreements with all provinces and territories for guaranteed patient wait times; addressing the doctor/nurse shortage by establishing new funding for training; development of electronic health records

Liberal: liberal.ca

• Ensure that the country’s health care system will continue for all Canadians, regardless of residence or income

• Ensure a patient-focused health care system

• Increase training for new healthcare professionals

• Work more closely with Aboriginal communities to help lessen the health gap

• Provide “catastrophic drug coverage” for everyone

NDP: ndp.ca

• Committed to public health care

• Working with provinces in order to discourage for-profit health care

• Free dental and drug coverage for everyone over 65; expanded long-term care options for acute-care seniors

• Investment in innovative choice for patience, like home care

• Affordable national prescription drug strategy

• Promotion of healthy living

Bloc: blocquebecois.org

• Create an independent, Quebec-run health-care system; support provincial health care initiatives while opposing federal health care interventions

• Maintain universal health care

Green Party: greenparty.ca

• Maintain public health care

• Reinstatement of funding for the Canadian Health Network

• Creation of a fund for community – conceived and focused projects that address human and ecosystem health

• Focus on environmentally friendly, non-toxic products

• Promote fitness, sports, and active living