The Canadian Health Care Battleground: One Soldier’s Story

I’ve talked about the interesting quirks in our marvellous Canadian health care system before. I got lots of comments from people with stories of their own experiences with our system, the American system, the UK system.  None of them are even close to good.  I also got at least one very vehement comment  uncategorically defending the Canadian health care system as the best in the world.

Okay, so those of you who also follow Zoom’s blog know she has been living a health care nightmare for a long time now. She’s pretty much at her wit’s end and needs help – help that they tell her is still years and years away.

First, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through months and months of waiting and a whole passel of crazy tests that scared the shit out of her with “indications” of more widely spread cancer and/or more severe tumours. Then they let her wait for what seemed like forever while thoughts of imminent death ate away at her psyche. Then “oops” turns out all those tests where false positives. She then she was actually happy to “only” have a little breast cancer.

Meanwhile, and concurrently (perhaps because of the unimaginable stress) a chronic back problem shifted into turbo gear and she began experiencing excruciating and ongoing back and leg pain. A protruding disk in her back has grown to such an extent that it is almost entirely blocking her spinal cavity. (We won’t even discuss the years of off and on back pain that went before which no one bothered to address).

So they’ve been giving her hundreds of dollars worth of pain killers and anti-inflammatories (Because it’s all free in Canada!) and a shiny new handicapped parking sticker because she can’t really walk anymore. In her own words:

So I don’t walk. I lie on my couch, eating painkillers and anti-nausea drugs and anti-inflammatories. I sleep when I can. I read. I think. But mostly I just lie around, waiting.

Waiting for what? Well. This is the crazy part. I’m waiting to either get on a waiting list or to become permanently disabled as a result of waiting too long.

My doctor’s been trying to get me an appointment with either an orthopedic surgeon or a neurosurgeon, but she’s being told that here in Ottawa, orthopedic surgeons have two-year waiting lists. I’m not even on a waiting list yet.

My doctor says my situation is urgent but it’s not yet an emergency. I will be escalated to emergency status when I lose bowel or bladder control, or when I lose the ability to voluntarily lift my toes toward my knee (foot drop, it’s called, and it’s not as innocuous as it sounds).

It’s insane.

I’m going to end up addicted to narcotics because of this. (Zoom has had issues with addiction in her youth) The painkillers don’t eliminate the pain, they just dull it as long as I’m lying down. Walking is still excruciating. The painkillers are addictive, so I have to choose between addiction and constant severe pain. What kind of choice is that?

She can’t work. She can barely look after herself. She’s going to lose her house and end up on welfare and/or disability.  She’s still a young woman and this is all so unneccesary.

She needs to see a surgeon and have the surgery NOW. By the time she gets on  a waiting list in 2 years (if she hasn’t offed herself in desperation by then), she’ll have consumed so many chemicals that her body will never recover. She will also have developed so many other health problems by then that she’ll be on waiting lists for every specialty under the sun.

This is health care?

So now she and her friends and family and fellow bloggers are going to make some noise  – write some letters, make some calls, complain and find some options somewhere — anywhere else if none of that works. (Contacts, suggestions, advice, assistance are all gratefully accepted).

Sadly, she’s not the only one in a situation like this or even in a situation worse than this, but she’s the one we know.

She’s the most patient person I know and would never dream of trying to jump a queue to get attention ahead of someone else. And she never gets angry. But she’s angry now and she’s suffering enough and frightened enough to step on and over whoever she needs to in order to get that surgery.

That’s a horrible image.

But it’s how our system works. Athletes, politicians, those with connections are getting the care they need and quickly. For the rest of us it’s a savage free-for-all. And what interesting nuances that phrase has.

Fuck you, Best Health Care System in the World.


21 responses to “The Canadian Health Care Battleground: One Soldier’s Story

  1. I’m so sorry to hear this and I understand because it sounds a bit like what I went through; only mine was heart and now back.

    Don’t let the commercials fool you (well, we see them here in America) America’s health care system sucks. I went without insurance and hence without care for an urgent heart problem. Then, I got state insurance (not every state has insurance) and for six months Anthem tried to kick me off because I had the nerve to actually go to the doctor when I needed too.

    In this day and age it is just ridiculous.

  2. What an awful thing to go through. I don’t know anyone personally who could help, but I did pass along a link to this post on Twitter. Hoping for the best…

  3. XUP – does Health Canada ever claim that ours is the best health care system in the world? I’m pretty sure they know we’re not. It’s just the patriotic sycophants who say that.

    Sheryl – we know the US system is not better. That’s why so many Canadians think our system is the best. Just like there are Americans who can’t see beyond their borders, many Canadians can’t see beyond the borders of North America.

    You make an interesting point, XUP, on the price of the medications. At some point, it becomes cheaper to send her to the US and pay for a private surgery than to put her on medication.

    Have a gander at PBS Frontline’s Sick Around the World documentary for a comparison of different health care models.

    – RG>

  4. I have experienced British, Canadian and Malaysian health care. Malaysian health care is following in the footsteps of the USA system in which it is increasingly dependent on insurance to be affordable. The very poor can get access to free treatment but it is often substandard.

    On the other hand, when you have insurance, the hospital tends to subject you to the costliest treatment rather than ones that you need. Recently, a friend’s leg was swollen after an accident and without even an examination, the doctor recommended hospitalisation, MRI and an operation. When asked why he recommended that, he merely replied that we shouldn’t worry about it since it will be covered by insurance. As it happens, my friend has made a full recovery without treatment after another week.

    There is even a health centre that insists patients go for x-rays and ultrasound before they are even allowed to see the doctor irrespective of what your ailment is.

    Even worse, there are cases of hospitals turning away emergencies because such cases are consided low return but high risk for negative publicity (i.e. patient may die).

    Having experienced the three systems, I have to say that the Canadian Health Care system seems the best of the three. I was impressed when the University Clinic for Ottawa Students diagnosed the underlying cause of my at one time debilitating illness which evaded Malaysian doctors for more than 10 years.

    I guess no system is perfect and I am sorry to hear of Zoom’s problems. I hope that she will get the help she needs and quickly.

    All I can say, is that many of us have far worse systems. Nevertheless, I know that is poor comfort for Zoom.

  5. Thanks XUP. Just a point of clarification: the drugs aren’t free. When my employment-related health benefits expired, I started paying full freight for them. It’s costing me about $150 a month. (Once I’ve sold my house, exhausted all my savings, and gone on disability or welfare, the government will start paying for them.)

  6. Sorry, I just re-read the first paragraph about the source of the “best in the world” comment. Makes sense now.

    (That’s what I get for reading blogs too early in the morning)

    – RG>

  7. Oh Man – ZOOMie I am so sorry to hear that – & yes – it would be cheaper in the states than two frigging years

    Would any one care to advise me if ortho surgeons are limited by the gov’t?

    (like they limit the number of radiologists etc that can practice)

  8. Okay I wrote this really long drawn out thing on health care and then pushed a wrong button. Short version…I think health care quality is geographical in the states. I also think it sucks because it is all about capitalism, insurance companies and drug companies making money. Doctors become pushers and send you for a lot of test you probably don’t need to bilk insurance companies so the hospitals can also make money. Since insurance now sucks after the deductibles, the 80 percent coverage the patient ends up broke and deeply depressed. It’s pretty pathetic that a country such as this, the most powerful, richest country in the world, could really give a shit less about its people. It’s about the money…about the rich getting richer off the poor that carry them. And the poor don’t have the sense to realize they are being shackled by the rich all they know is that they don’t want to be commies, because that would be a fate worse than death.

    No really this is the short version.
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

  9. Sheryl – It really is ridiculous. I don’t even know what else to say. There are piles of money for bail outs and Hollywood blockbusters, but no money to keep people healthy and alive.

    Mary Lynn – Thanks! You never know what might turn up.

    Grouchy – Thanks for the link. From what I’ve read previously, we’re not even making the top 10 anymore. The French (and some other countries) seem to have their health care priorities straight — it’s about the clients!!

    LGS – Ya, I know we don’t have the worst system either. I don’t know when you were here, but things have gone downhill very rapidly in the last 10 years or so. Still we’re one of the richest countries in the world. There is no excuse for this.

    Zoom – Ouch. Sorry. I thought they’d automatically pay for your meds once you weren’t working anymore. What would it take for you to get on some sort of disability? They’d pay for them then, right? Better yet, let’s figure out a way to get you fixed up asap. Then you don’t have to worry about the cost of drugs.

    Elliot – I have no idea how they work this. I know we have a severe shortage of doctors of every description and from what Zoom was telling me earlier they have been instructed to prioritize their patients so that hip and knee replacements come at the top of orthos lists. Which means everything else takes second place or something. I don’t know. I hope someone else can explain it.

    Cedar – The whole thing is insane in both countries. If you’ve got the money or clout you can get anything you want. For everyone else — well, if you’re poor, who cares, right? Like I said to Sheryl – we have so much friggin’ money for everything else, why not for something that’s actually important?

  10. I thought about this and the only way we can get money for this healthcare thing is to DECLARE WAR ON ILLNESS…if it’s got the word WAR in it, the States will fund. Now we got to find the one thing that Canadians will always fund and we can lick this. You all aren’t much on War…which makes you extremely appealing as a country.

  11. Ontario offers an ‘additional’ drug plan called The Trillium Drug Plan and it is not meant to replace private insurance or other drug benefits covered by the province. You can apply to the program if you have no private insurance or are partially covered by your private insurer The Trillium Drug Plan provides benefits for certain prescription drugs when drugs for a household are higher than approximately 4% of the total household net income.

    This is certainly worth pursing and the following link will provide additional information and the application. (Note link was created as ‘tiny’) :

  12. Cedar – That’s funny because I was originally going to call this post something like Canada’s War on Health. A war on illness would be a most excellent idea. We can ferret out its causes, pour millions of dollars and manhours into wiping out illness everywhere, create all sorts of crazy new laws and regulations and tie them into the war on illness!Yay.

    Lola – I was pretty ticked off by the end of that post.

    Charlene – Pretty much everyone I know who has or is dealing with a health issue has a disturbing story to tell – which makes it all even more disturbing.

    Kathryn – Thanks, I will pass this along to Zoom. Now if only there were a handy program to get her the surgery she needs instead of years of drugs…

  13. I”m so sorry to hear about Zoom’s horrible situtation.

    Sadly, there are too many stories like hers. (Like that woman in Ottawa a few weeks ago, who needs treatment at the Mayo Clinic to save her life, but OHIP wouldn’t pay for it).

    We dont’ have enough money for enough doctors in this country, or enough operating rooms for them to work in…but we have enough money to give six-figure BONSUS for idiots like THIS:

    It’s immoral.

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  15. I don’t think you can get government assistance unless you have tapped all your own resources, hence Zoom’s reference to having to sell her house first.

    I know I’ve said this before but the model for health care is wrong. It is based on insurance and I think it would be better if it were based on something like supply and demand. I wish someone who studied these things would pick up that ball and run with it.

    What are insurance companies in business for? Answer: to make money for their shareholders! NOT to help you. They are also based on a gambling premise – they gamble that they will not have to pay out. And if you look like you will die early (i.e. not pay enough premiums), they charge you more premiums, or they won’t sell you a policy at all. Insurance is NOT the right model!!

  16. Friar – AAAArrrrgghhhhhh (re: your link). Immoral indeed.

    Julia – “Supply and demand” — seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? That’s what good health care systems are based on, as well as most successful businesses.

  17. Zoom! I wish I could heal you like that guy in that one movie with Tom Hanks! I am so sorry to hear about your hurdles and delayed care.

    This perspective in important for myself and other Americans to understand. Right now the span of access to care and cost of care is insane. I work for a government entity and I have amazing health insurance. My husband went from the ER to 2 days in the hospital with dozens of tests and we paid $0. The insurance company paid $14,000. My husband’ parents came to the hospital to pay for whatever costs our insurance would not cover because most people do not have full coverage like I do.

    So many people go without coverage at all, without adequate coverage and without proper care. Baby boomers are resisting retirement due to the cost of private health care.

    Something has got to give and I personally have no clue what the best route to take is now. I just know that my fellow humans deserve care.

    The talk of public health care in the US is helping to keep me employed because I work in health care workforce development. Even if we all suddenly had coverage for care, there are not nearly enough practitioners to see everyone.

  18. this kind of thing drives me crazy. i’m so glad that you write about this topic b/c of the talk of changing the health care in the US. i hope that she can find the help she needs and i believe in that line, “the squeaky wheel get the grease” b/c it’s true. i’ve had to pull it out and use it a few times.

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