Health Care Reform


President Obama’s joint address to Congress this week underscored something rather desperate in the ongoing healthcare imbroglio: That the President and his team have to stare down such entrenched interests of private property in America, whose prime motive force is the profit motive and not the national interest.

Speaking as a Canadian, who has lived with universal Medicare since 1962, (our system came into full force on Canada Day, our national holiday, July 1, 1968), I can truly attest to the benefits that it has wrought in the lives of average Canadians. Before the advent of universal Medicare, not to mention state support for higher education, the average Canadian was fairly poor. He or she, for the most part, worked either as a farmer, fisherman, forestry worker, manual labourer, or in a factory or office doing fairly low-skilled, low-payed labour-intensive work.

The class of wealth creators in our country was fairly small, and still is. They controlled a host of financial, commercial, and industrial institutions, mostly located in the two central provinces of our country, Québec and Ontario, leaving most other regions fairly impoverished.

Therefore, the timely intervention of the government, led by a Social-Democratic man by the name of Tommy Douglas, took on the medical profession, as well as the big health insurance companies and won. Doctors in Saskatchewan even went on strike in 1962 to protest having Medicare imposed upon them. But democracy won out. What worked was that the PEOPLE of Canada were in favour of such a scheme, and supported Tommy Douglas unequivocally, even in the face of public pressure from the captains of industry.

Since then, the army of publically-financed hospitals and the workers, mostly unionized, who work in them, have not only injected billions of dollars of buying power into the economy through their wages, but they have also produced several generations of well-fed, healthy Canadians who in their turn went on to university, founded businesses of their own, and created more wealth, which in turn was redistributed by the tax system.

However, some elements of the medical profession, and the wealth-creating class never accepted the scheme. They saw the increased level of taxation necessary to support it as an impediment to free enterprise. Private sector investment began to shrink. Plants and equipment wore out, and investors were less ready, willing, or able to replace it due to the higher cost of doing business, and therefore started looking elsewhere. Tax revenue fell; we went into a deficit, combined with high inflation caused by high government spending, called ‘stagflation’, at the time.

Things came to a head in the 1979-82 recession. The deficit and debt got big enough that conservatives felt they had a shot at power. Ronald Reagan had come to power in Washington, and a new conservative leader here in Canada thought he could emulate his policies, as well as address some of the seemingly intractable constitutional issues facing our country at the time. Brian Mulroney, which was his name, came to power in 1984, and tried effectuating some cutbacks to social spending but was shouted down by left wing lobby groups and the unions.

Ironically, it was only when a Liberal government came back to power after Mr. Mulroney’s departure in 1993, and our country was threatened with an IMF/World Bank austerity plan, did we do something about it. Under the aegis of PM Jean Chrétien and his Finance minister Paul Martin, massive cutbacks were made in social spending, especially to health care and education. This starved the system so much for cash, that the proponents of private medicine, who’d been lurking in the shadows for years, now had the appropriate platform for change.

Our public system still soldiers on to this day, albeit with increasing encroachment from the private sector, either as providers of services covered by the public plan, or providers of services not covered. Most people now accept that they now have to buy supplemental coverage for things that Medicare doesn’t cover, if they can afford it, or if their employer provides them with such coverage, assuming, of course, they actually are lucky enough to have a job.

In a NAFTA-dominated world of continental integration, our system is ultimately getting ‘dumbed down’, but is the U.S. system getting ‘pumped up’? Hopefully, we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.

As President Obama tries valiantly to get some sort of health care bill through Congress, I think back to those days in the 1960s when Tommy Douglas mobilized public opinion for his cause. Is there not a sufficiently large segment of the American people who want universal coverage badly enough to be able to mobilize public opinion in their favour, and stare down, and shout down the entrenched interests of money, power, property, and prestige who seem to be dominating the hegemonic discourse in America? Whatever happened to a government ‘of the people, by the people, and FOR the people’, that the President actually had the courage to speak about in his inaugural address?

What about the Pledge of Allegiance? ‘…one Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty, and Justice for all?’ The man who wrote these words was a Socialist Baptist Minister named Francis Bellamy, who inaugurated the pledge in 1892 as part of a campaign to honour the 400th anniversary of Columbus coming to the New World. He was actually pressured to leave his ministry because of his Socialist sermons, which preached equality between people of different genders and races.

Does the first African-American President have what it takes to live up to the second part of that pledge? I get the impression that the proponents of the first part about liberty are winning the battle. Maybe Mr. Obama can conjure up the ghost of Tommy Douglas and have a little fireside chat at the White House before everything fades to black.

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