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The True Cost of Health Care

What I'm about to tell you, I've told very few people. It's about my mother and the Canadian health care system. She died last summer. It was an excruciating four days in the hospital.

But before I give you the details, let me first tell you about my assignment for this month's episode of Envision San Diego , "Right to Health". We compare American privatized health care with Canadian universal coverage.

I'm a Canadian. I grew up with free health care. Yeah, I know Canadians pay more in taxes. & It's a country that casts a wide social net and for that, they pay. In our show we address wait time, cost and quality of care. And we ask the question: "Is health care a right?"

While working on the show, I met an American woman who tried to refinance her house to pay for an MRI. Her name is Leigh Ann Brady. She has back pain and has been unable to work as a waitress for a year. She has no health insurance. I also spoke with Chris Van Gorder, the president and CEO of Scripps Health. When I told Van Gorder I had interviewed a woman who couldn't afford an MRI, he immediately offered to help.

The journalist's dilemma: am I somehow becoming an advocate and changing the story by helping to arrange a free MRI for Brady? I know that question should give me pause, but honestly, it didn't. Not for long anyway. A woman in pain needs a test and here's the head of five hospitals willing to help. Of course I called Brady. And she got her free MRI from Scripps, thanks to Van Gorder.

I told my sister in Canada this story. She immediately pointed out the irony. "You can help a woman you don't even know get an MRI, but you couldn't do anything to get your own mother a CAT scan," she said.

Back to those four excruciating days in hospital. The first day in the emergency room, my mother needed a CAT scan. But the hospital doesn't do CAT scans past 4:00 p.m. They sent her home and told her someone would call; she'd have to wait for the test. It was the beginning of a cascade of events that eventually lead to her death. The appointment for the scan wasn't made until after she died.

I know firsthand how waiting for health care can be devastating in a system that is forced to ration limited services. And I also understand how accustomed Canadians have become to a health care system that demands people wait weeks or even months for routine tests, procedures, even simple visits to a doctor. But as a Canadian living in America, I can't say that excluding 46 million people (that's how many have no health insurance in the U.S.) & from getting any care at all by virtue of financial or employment circumstance is a more equitable system. There are Canadians who wish they could pay for health care and get it sooner. And I know there are Americans, some of them you meet in our show, who believe the Canadian way, albeit a system that makes you wait, is more humane. But to quote another Canadian living in San Diego who is profiled in our show, Geoff Leibl: "There's no point in having free health care if you're going to die waiting for it."

Perhaps Canadians are just too patient and too polite to demand more from their government and Americans too worried about taxes and government intervention to ask for anything at all. In my opinion, neither is acceptable.

Envision San Diego's Right to Health aired Wednesday February 25 at 7:00 p.m., on KPBS Television.

Envision San Diego's Right to Health aired Wednesday February 25 at 7 p.m., on KPBS Television.

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