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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/25499

Title: Critical Condition: A Historian's Prognosis on Canada's Aging Healthcare System
Authors: Bliss, Michael
Issue Date: 2010
Publisher: C.D. Howe Institute, Canada
Description: Foreword When a set of public policies fundamental to our wellbeing is so politically sensitive and shot through with conflicting real and perceived conflicts of interest as to produce paralysis, a smart and wise historian can often provide the long-term, evolutionary perspective required to find the more promising ways forward. Canadian healthcare is fundamental to our wellbeing and so politically charged that despite its widely perceived shortcomings, attempts at fundamental reform appear the electoral equivalent of touching the proverbial third rail on a subway track. Professor Michael Bliss is one of Canada’s most able and eminent historians. The C.D. Howe Institute’s 2010 Benefactors Lecture is his attempt to take stock of publicly funded healthcare in Canada in the light of how it came to be, and give his assessment of the right directions forward to ensure that it serves Canadians well in the decades ahead. A good historian draws from many disciplines, and Professor Bliss’s account draws on insights from medicine, political science, economics, and much else. His account of the development of what Canadians nowadays call “medicare” from provincial coverage of doctor and hospital services in the 1960s through the federal Canada Health Act in the 1980s and the alternating dips and boosts in spending in the 1990s and 2000s is clear and compelling. Without undue deference to any particular perspective, he argues convincingly that an economically advanced democratic society will devote a growing share of its resources to healthcare, and that Canadians’ support for access to it is a fact of life that even medicare’s more vociferous critics must accommodate in their reform proposals. When it comes to his own advice for reform, Professor Bliss puts forward some propositions that will – like all changes to healthcare – inevitably be controversial. He draws on experiences with other major programs in the Canadian welfare state, family and old-age benefits in particular, to argue that reducing public commitments to the healthcare of Canadians who are able to pay their own way is both fiscally necessary and politically acceptable. Hence, he encourages the evolution of our health insurance system from providing universality of benefits onto a needs basis, preserving the core value of equal access. Economists and others concerned with the way income- and asset-related withdrawal of benefits from the better off have produced welfare walls and high effective marginal tax rates on modest-income people will have reservations about this proposal. If he is right that it is the way out of the chronic fiscal squeeze that otherwise looms, however, the challenge is to craft the most adept way to do it. In an age of reduced deference to experts of all kinds, Professor Bliss’s second recommendation – that Canadians accept that medical researchers and practitioners should play a more prominent role in determining what is medically necessary – will also raise objections. It may presuppose a level of confidence in professional expertise, and improved standards for research and practice that would justify that confidence, that medicine, like all fields, has yet to achieve. Yet the importance of specialized knowledge in determining what is likeliest to work is so critical in medicine that the problems of letting third parties, including health ministries, overrule researchers and practitioners in the field oblige us to take this advice seriously. Professor Bliss’s third observation is less about how to move forward than it is about not staying stuck where we are. Whatever the devotion of some Canadians and a handful of advocates abroad to a single-payer government monopoly model may be, he points out that no other developed country has imitated it, and none is about to. Canada’s current approach is a product of specific Canadian circumstances, not least of which is its emblematic status as a differentiator of Canada from the United States – hardly a sound basis for determining how to provide and pay for the vast array of medical services that determine how healthy or sick we are, and even whether we live or die. His appeal to use more market mechanisms to harness the incentives of producers and patients in the service of better outcomes, rather than lamenting or denouncing them, is a general exhortation. In practice, it will require balancing against his other suggestions to abandon universality and defer more to medical expertise. Yet there can be no doubt that any reform that does not harness these incentives effectively cannot hope to succeed. The C.D. Howe Institute’s Benefactors Lecture is intended to encourage better understanding of major Canadian public policy challenges, and stimulate debate about how best to meet them. Many people besides Professor Bliss deserve credit for producing the 2010 version of the Lecture: I thank Pfizer for their financial support, the reviewers of earlier drafts for their comments, Barry Norris and James Fleming for their editing, and Bryant Sinanan for his page layout. As with all the Institute publications, the opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute’s members or Board of Directors. I commend Professor Bliss for having ably responded to the challenge of addressing the condition of Canadian healthcare, however, and hope all readers will take from it his valuable insights about how we got where we are, and what can help us do better. (William B.P. Robson President and Chief Executive Officer C.D. Howe Institute)
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/25499
Appears in Collections:historyofsurgery.ca

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