Canadian business owners thrive with their country’s health care system

Many Canadian business owners and managers say their country’s government-run, universal health care system is far from perfect, but they would not trade it for an American-style system. Small Business Times contacted executives at several Canadian companies to ask them about their experiences in their health care system.

The Canadian system, funded with personal income and corporate taxes, gives every citizen access to hospital, emergency and preventative health care. Many employers provide insurance that gives prescription drug, physical therapy, dental and other coverage.

“I think we have a great health care system,” said Linda Faubert, chief financial officer with Phil Jutras & Sons Ltd., a transportation firm headquartered in Sudbury, Ontario. “It’s available and free to everybody.”

A portion of the taxes that Canadian businesses pay to the federal and provincial governments helps pay for health care.

Greg Baiden, owner, chairman and chief technology officer of Penguin Automated Systems Inc., a research, development and prototyping company in northern Ontario, said those taxes are worth the burden because of what he gets in return.

“It’s not an unreasonable amount of money to pay to get good health care for my employees,” Baiden said. “I think that’s a pretty good situation. It really helps businesses grow and ultimately create employment.”

The universal access and low cost of health care in Canada allow people on fixed incomes to undergo costly but life-saving procedures.

“My wife’s father had a stroke a couple years ago, and he was pretty incapacitated from that,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, president with Aurora Microsystems, a data hosting and IT company based in Sudbury. “Had he been in the American system, he wouldn’t have been able to afford open heart surgery. He had triple bypass surgery with some of the best care in the world in our city.”

In the Canadian system, insurance is portable, meaning coverage does not end when people change jobs. Furthermore, people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.

The Canadian system is especially good for emergencies, said Dave Brown, assistant lab manager and microbiologist with MouldClean Ltd., a mold detection and cleanup service in Sudbury.

“When you’re way out in the boonies and if anything happens, you dial 911, and the hospitals will send out helicopters fast,” he said. “There’s never a concern about paying or ‘Can I afford to pay for it?'”

The wait

However, the Canadian system isn’t perfect.

Because health care costs are paid through taxes, instead of insurance, some patients tend to abuse emergency rooms and other costly facilities, instead of using walk-in clinics or their doctor’s office.

“Sometimes, there’s a misconception that it’s free,” said William Falcioni, president of Sudbury Credit Union Ltd. “That leaves it open to abuse. (Some) taxpayers don’t appreciate that a lot of our dollars go to the health care system.”

Long wait times for radiology care  – scans like MRIs and CTs – are common complaints about the Canadian health system. Even patients with serious injuries or illness may need to wait for services.

“We contemplated (traveling to the United States) last year when my foreman cracked his pelvis,” said Todd Herold, president of Herold Supply, an aftermarket auto supplier in Sudbury. “He spent a week and a half waiting in bed. We finally called our minister of parliament and told him to get him somewhere to get fixed up. He was flown to Ottawa the next day. If you have the right connections, you can make it happen. But a lot of people don’t have the wherewithal to do that.”

Canadians have grown accustomed to long waiting times for diagnostic procedures and elective surgeries.

“For surgeries like knee and shoulders, there do seem to be long lead times,” Herold said. “I’ve had my knee done twice. My mother-in-law needs shoulder surgery, and she’s been waiting close to a year.”

Todd Muzyka’s daughter became sick in September 2006. She wasn’t able to get a CT scan until this June, he said. Muzyka is the owner of Computrek Information Management Corp. in Sudbury.

While Muzyka and his wife thought about purchasing care for their daughter in the United States, they decided to stay within the Canadian system.

“That was a last resort,” Muzyka said. “Fortunately for me, her doctor was one of my high school buddies. But all he can do is book you in – a lot of stuff needs referral from a specialist.”

Emergency care is faster

While some patients need to wait for scans for non-emergency services, emergency cases are pushed to the front of the list. But when patients live far away from major cities, they may need to travel to see specialists.

“My daughter has a kidney disorder, and we’ve never had to wait at all,” said Rich Schmidt, branch manager for WESA, an environmental science, health, safety and engineering consulting group that has an office in Sudbury.

Once a year, Schmidt’s family drives to Toronto, more than four hours from Sudbury, for annual checkups with a specialist.

“They (doctors) can do test work here and send the information there,” Schmidt said. “We’ve got relatives there. We make a weekend out of it.”

When Linda Cartier’s husband was having heart problems, there was no wait.

“He went in, and they dealt with it,” said Cartier, who is president of Financial Decisions Inc., a financial planning firm in Sudbury.

However, one of Cartier’s employees has waited eight to nine months for arthritis surgery, because it’s not considered to be an emergency procedure.

Two-tier system

Some patients are circumventing wait times by paying for services in an emerging two-tiered system in Canada. A 2005 court case in Ontario allowed patients to pay for private health care services if they do not want to wait for state-provided health care.

“I know of an instance where someone was diagnosed with prostate cancer,” Falcioni said. “He researched who the best doctor was and paid extra to get him available.”

“My son was having difficulties at school. We suspected it might be a learning issue,” said Lawrence Duguay, controller with Dalron Construction Ltd., based in Sudbury. “To get a diagnostic done, it would have taken a year. And we were a quarter of the way into the school year. We said, ‘Screw that, we’ll pay for it ourselves,’ and it got done in a month.”

Bowers believes the two-tiered system will become more widespread in Canada in the future, especially for more complex procedures.

“I think that eventually, the people who have money will be able to pay (for faster treatment),” Bowers said. “Most Canadians need their basic care covered. The rest we know we need to take care of. The mindset is that the basic stuff should be covered, and the specialized stuff we don’t have a problem paying. I welcome the private industry coming in.”

Other Canadians have traveled to the United States for care instead of waiting.

“I have a friend, a life insurance agent, who got sick,” Muzyka said. “He took his cash and went to the Mayo Clinic (in Rochester, Minn.), and they figured it out in a week.”

Faubert knows of several people who have traveled to the United States for treatment because they didn’t want to wait for medical services in Canada.

“It’s usually cancer treatment, and it’s usually wealthier people,” Faubert said. “We do that here (in Canada) too. You can move around (the country) and still get care.”

The Canadian perspective

Many Canadians believe that American hospitals are more plush than their hospitals, which tend to be no-frills buildings with an emphasis on basic technology. However, the costs of getting care in the United States is a real concern.

“I personally haven’t had the need to end up in a hospital in the states,” Cartier said. “But from those that have, I’ve heard that the environment is higher. It feels more like a hotel than a hospital. With what you’re getting here (in Canada), you’re getting addressed and looked after, but you’re really glad to get out. The food is just kind of there. There’s no fancy wallpaper.”

Many Canadians are shocked to learn that medical costs have become the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States.

“My feelings are, ‘Thank God I’m not an American,'” Brown said. “If you have money and are wealthy, you can get proper care, but if you don’t have money, from the horror stories, it may be impossible to get health care. It seems like proper health care is for the rich only.”

When he travels to the United States, Brown purchases extra travel insurance to cover his health care costs in an emergency. He doesn’t buy the same coverage when traveling to Europe.

“It’s not the same when we go to Ireland or France,” he said. “We don’t have those same fears. There are a lot of wonderful things about America, but (health care) is one of the things that scares the hell out of Canadians.”

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