By Henry Champ
Brace yourself, Canada. It's almost time for our cameo appearance in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Look closely and any day now you may see a CNN satellite truck pulling up to the door of a large Toronto hospital, all ready to tell voters back home about the great Canadian medicare experiment. It likely won't be the only U.S. media outlet to make the trek north.
Iraq is still the big campaign issue at the moment. But health care is gaining ground and if journalistic history is any guide, Canada won't escape the spotlight.
One report will almost surely document the many, so-called victims of long waits for emergency operations. Another will cite statistics showing that Canadians are healthier and live longer than Americans, thanks to Canada's all-embracing system.
A third may well document the number of Canadian doctors leaving the country to practise in the States; or perhaps the numbers of American doctors escaping the onerous supervision of the dreaded HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations) for the creature comforts of Montreal.
Control your anger, fellow Canadians, this will eventually go away. But not, I fear, for a while. This is going to be an intense campaign and already I can identify two events that should guarantee a long life for health care as an election issue.
One is rebel filmmaker Michael Moore's Sicko, which hits North American theatres this weekend and in which, unbeknownst to me, I make a brief appearance as a generic Washington correspondent. The other is Hillary Clinton's speech earlier this week to the national convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a prime Democratic party backdrop.
Whose Sicko now?
Clinton has not yet unveiled her health-care platform, but she gave a peek by telling members of the gigantic union, "You know, I was in Detroit recently, and a gentleman, a UAW worker from the Wixom plant that makes Lincoln cars, told me they are closing the plant down. Some of the work is going to Mexico, but some of the high-value work is going to Canada because of lower health-care costs."
It was a subtle jab, which is not something you'd accuse Michael Moore of.
According to the press release for the film, Sicko highlights the struggles of ordinary Americans, some with health insurance and some without, as they navigate their country's health-care system.
Moore compares it to those in Canada, France and Britain, which have government-run programs. He is quoted saying, "This has been a difficult film to make because we're dealing with a lot of people who are sick and a lot of people who have died, and I don't want this system to kill any more of my fellow Americans."
Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine were box office blockbusters and opinion shapers. There is no reason to think this one won't be either, especially as health care (though trailing Iraq in the polls) is probably the most important bread-and-butter issue in the campaign.
It also has a lot of resonance, perhaps especially for Hillary.
Vote for Bill
In 1992, I was working for another network and assigned to the Clinton campaign. Bill Clinton was making his mark by running on reform of the U.S. health-care system. He was drawing big, supportive crowds. I remember the bus tours through the Midwest and the always positive response when Clinton warmed to his subject. "Health insurance for everyone," he shouted. "Vote for Bill," they yelled back.
One night in St. Paul, it was close to midnight when we arrived hours late for a rally and still some 45,000 Minnesotans cheered when Clinton talked of universal coverage.
Unfortunately for his supporters, once he arrived at the White House Clinton made a hash of his efforts to produce a universal, Canadian-style program that could pass Congress. Lobbyists from the health community beat his brains in with smart strategy and big bucks.
The defeat was so great that Bill and Hillary, who had a front-and-centre role in the effort, never returned to the health-care reform for the duration of his time in office.
Clinton's successor, President George W. Bush had no interest in the issue, and offered only nibbles on the sidelines. But it is a new day in 2007 and '08.
The Concord Coalition, a non-profit group that champions responsible budgeting, says skyrocketing health-care costs and retirement benefits will lead to a doubling of income taxes over the next 35 years.
Most Americans report their personal coverage narrows every year and their costs mount. Nearly 50 million Americans are uncovered — no health insurance whatsoever — straining the nation's emergency wards.
In 1992, the American Medical Association worked against the Clintons' efforts. Today the AMA membership is so split, it has opted out of the health-care debate.
We Canadians know all about the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian health-care system. We argue about it all the time. Get ready for Americans to do the same.