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Government & policy

California considers ‘Canadianizing’ its healthcare

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – During the first week of September, California legislators were readying themselves for a vote on converting their healthcare system to a publicly funded model along the lines used in Canada.

Senate Bill 840 would provide free medical, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage to all California residents through a state-run agency.

Canada has been front and centre in the heated debate sparked by the bill, which must be approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to become law.

“We’ve learned from the Canadian system and integrated it into a plan specifically for California,” said Sara Rogers, a spokeswoman for Senator Sheila Kuehl, who put forward the bill.

“A universal healthcare plan is the only way California can solve its healthcare problems,” she added, noting that more than six million Californians have no health insurance.

Opponents of the bill have also thrust the spotlight on Canada’s system, citing long waiting lists, lack of equipment and doctor shortages as proof that a publicly funded system would lead to catastrophe.

“Californians do not want the rationed care and long waits in line that people living in Canada and Europe have been forced to endure,” says Greg Aghazarian, chair of the Republican caucus for the state assembly.

Critics also point out that last year, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down Quebec’s ban on private clinics, ruling it violated patients’ human rights.

“There is a whole mythology about the Canadian health-care system,” says John Graham, director of health-care studies for the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based conservative think-tank.

“People need to look past the rhetoric and see the reality,” which is not only poor access to services, but the exodus of physicians, argues Graham. He warns that California doctors will flee to Nevada to avoid a nanny state.

However, an estimated 46 million Americans are without medical insurance – which is becoming increasingly expensive and beyond the means of many companies and individuals. Observers fear this situation could lead to plummeting health in the general population.

For its part, San Francisco has already gone ahead with its own version of universal care: In August, Mayor Gavin Newsom signed a law that would make the city the first in the U.S. to offer healthcare to its 82,000 uninsured residents.

Under the system proposed for California, healthcare providers would be paid by the new California Health Insurance Agency; the agency would set the fees. The plan would be funded by an 8% payroll tax and a 3% individual income tax.

Kuehl says the system would make up any shortfall in funds by streamlining administrative costs and negotiating bulk rates for equipment and medication.

Schwarzenegger has declined to take a stand on the bill; however, in a July speech to the Commonwealth Club, he said, “I don’t believe that government should ... start running a healthcare system.”

However, he acknowledged that Californians face a healthcare crisis, and promised to give the issue priority if he is re-elected in the state elections, slated for Nov. 7.