Commentary: Don't blame Canada in health care debate

In 1999 "Blame Canada" from the South Park movie was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song. For many Canadians, this was hilarious. But, the humor of the song was as much irony as it was the lyrical references to hockey and Canadian songstress Anne Murray. Why irony? Because blaming Canada would require Americans to acknowledge that Canada exists.

Be careful what you wish for. This summer a new version of Blame Canada is hitting the US airwaves. But, this time it's not being sung by cartoon characters in a movie. Instead, those warbling about their northern neighbor are media pundits and elected officials who have decided to include "the Canadian system" in America's debate over the future of health care.

Along with the UK, France and even Cuba, Canada is held up by many as an object lesson for all those foolish enough to flirt with government-provided health care. And, it's not just the usual cranks on the political right who are doing this. Even President Obama implied in his address to Congress that Canada has a radical approach to delivering health care to its citizens.

Canadians don't think of their health care system as radical. To them, it's just right. Therefore, it's not surprising that in a recent poll asking Canadians about their greatest accomplishments as a nation, universal health care scored in the top three.

Further on this point, in a poll conducted this summer by the Canadian Medical Association (the lobby group that represents Canada's doctors), fewer than 10% of those surveyed gave Canada's health care system a failing grade for overall quality, choice, or their last personal experience with the system.

None of this means that the Canada's health care system is perfect. Canadians do have problems with wait times and customer service. But, apart from a few radicals, almost nobody in Canada is calling for a major overhaul of the health care system. In fact, health care is often described in Canadian politics as a third rail issue — it's a topic that's so "charged" that any politician who touches it will explode.

Ironically, Americans aren't alone in using another nation's health care system as a straw man in their debate about the future of health care. Canadians do the same. But, in Canada if you want to really frighten voters you just need to talk about somebody's "secret agenda" to bring in "American-style" health care. That will always send them running.

It's time for both countries to move beyond the easy ideological rhetoric and stereotypes that have distorted the health care debate. The truth is that we have a lot to learn from each other about what works and doesn’t work in both systems. And, signing a song of blame isn’t making anybody healthier.


Darrell Bricker is Global CEO, Ipsos Public Affairs. Ipsos Public Affairs is a division of Ipsos, a leading global market research company.


Ipsos Public Affairs conducts national and international public opinion polling on behalf of The McClatchy Company, the third-largest newspaper company in the United States, a leading newspaper and internet publisher dedicated to the values of quality journalism, free expression and community service.

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