Canada’s health care sickness

According to a popular saying, insanity can be summed up as the tendency to keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. If this is accurate then we have to conclude that successive Canadian governments which have tried to address the failings of our health-care systems are suffering from psychological distress.

Indeed, the all-encompassing governmental monopoly model, which has tried unsuccessfully to optimize the deployment of our too-meagre healthcare resources, has repeatedly yielded unsatisfactory results. A recent poll commissioned by the MEI, Second Street, and the Canadian Constitution Foundation showed that nearly two-thirds of Canadians believe our health-care systems are in need of major reforms. Moreover, 67 percent of Canadians are convinced that future generations will inherit a system that’s in even worse shape.

As a testament to all of this back-and-forth that characterizes governmental activity in health care, there’s a strange symmetry at the moment as the Alberta government is trying to get rid of a centralized health agency, Alberta Health Services, while Quebec is going out of its way to create one, Santé Québec. Less charitably, this amounts to a compelling diagnosis of the disease that’s afflicting us when it comes to health care.

To be clear, decentralization has every chance of leading to better results. This is a key lesson of the Austrian school of economics regarding information, which is naturally diffuse. Administrators, no matter their qualifications, will never be able to react quickly to such a sustained and diverse flow of information. That may seem obvious, but we clearly have a hard time applying it.

As Quebecers, it can sometimes feel like we’re observing certain aspects of the Canadian federal political scene as mere spectators. The health-care debate is a good example. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the goal of the government monopoly model in health care is not so much to treat the most patients, but rather to convince ourselves that we’re distinct from our southern neighbours.

I understand the importance of symbols. Life, after all, is not just a matter of arithmetic, and can’t be summed up as a series of ones and zeroes. But in this case, we’re paying far too high a price just to keep up appearances. It’s easy to state that a single death on our waiting lists is one too many. What can we say when there are thousands in a single year?

By transforming a simple practical matter (how to provide health-care services to the greatest number in a timely manner) into a philosophical question (who we are), the Canadian political class and media elite have completely lost their way.

To find health-care systems from which we can take some inspiration, there’s no need to look to the south or to imagine some kind of El Dorado. Many countries otherwise equipped with a vast array of restrictive, anti-growth public policies are the perfect example of stopped clocks being right twice a day. European countries like France, Sweden, and Germany—which are very far removed indeed from the libertarian dystopias imagined by leftists struggling to remain tethered to reality—are proof that the private sector can easily help provide universal and efficient healthcare coverage.

Like a stopped clock, Gilles Duceppe declared not too long ago that the policy of making things worse is the worst policy. As such, we should refrain from hoping that our health-care systems fall to pieces in order to pave the way for systems inspired by the model in place across the Atlantic. We need to have faith and continue to push for the very real possibility of profoundly reforming our system.

We can’t wait for night to fall, when the despair that paralyzes us when we think of our health-care systems will be swept away by the winds of change. Let’s be realistic: it’s not going to happen. Especially not when supposedly conservative ministers exhort the federal government to further limit access to health care!

Instead, we need to count on provincial governments that have had enough of hiding behind the federal government’s skirts. Provinces like Quebec and Alberta could, in time, start to implement viable solutions to these challenges. But they’ll need a good dose of courage. Thankfully, public opinion is starting to change for the better. Let’s hope it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Daniel Dufort is President and CEO of the MEI. The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.

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