Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No deals in American health care

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One line from the U.S. Declaration of Independence should be rewritten to read "...that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Affordable Health Insurance."

My wife and I have lived full-time in California since 1993 and have enjoyed top-notch health care, thanks to the school division that has employed my better half.

They paid the premiums for our comprehensive Blue Cross plan that covers all doctor visits, prescription medication, dental and vision care. The insurance provides excellent mental-health management, including psychiatric medication and psychological counselling.

When my Canadian friends regale me with their health-care horror stories -- waiting for months for pain-relieving arthroscopic surgery; not being able to find a doctor; hospital crowding -- I'm almost embarrassed to recall my luxurious experiences, such as the time my aching shoulder made it (gasp!) uncomfortable to lift my arm over my head.

I made an appointment with an orthopedic shoulder specialist. (My insurance doesn't require a referral by a primary-care physician.) In a span of two weeks, I saw the doctor, had X-rays, an MRI and a follow-up appointment for a cortisone injection that relieved the problem. If I had needed corrective surgery, it would have been scheduled within 10 days.

Anyone making this kind of claim in the Canada would need their head examined. Of course, they'd wait a long time to see a shrink.

This kind of medical care is expensive. When I invite friends to guess the annual cost, they invariably estimate between $3,000 and $5,000.

They are quite stunned to learn our annual insurance premiums are $16,462.20 with a $1,000 deductible and a 10 per cent co-payment of up to $4000. In other words, annual coverage for the two of us could be as high as $21,462.20, depending on usage.

For the past 20 years, we've only paid the deductible and co-payment amounting to a couple of grand every year.

Now that my wife has left teaching, we will be responsible for an amount that many people don't earn annually.

Being a Winnipegger makes me preternaturally "thrifty." Since there are no Air Miles or coupons, the idea of forking out that kind of dough for insurance is rather disturbing -- even if the investment could literally save my life.

We've considered making Canada our permanent residence and paying for health insurance through taxes. (It always makes me laugh when people say "health care in Canada is free.") Comparing the tax rates, I was rather surprised to find Canadian income tax isn't as drastic as I thought.

My Canadian accountant tells me a combined income of $120,000 would garner $28,400 of income taxes. My U.S. accountant says federal and state taxes on the same amount will run $20,288.

I've shopped around for insurance, mistakenly thinking there is such a thing as "free enterprise" when it comes to American health care. After speaking with several agents and looking at dozens of websites, it's become apparent to me that insurance companies only create the illusion of choice.

Sure, they offer different plans, some with lower premiums and higher deductibles and others with lower deductibles and higher premiums, but I've yet to discover a plan from any insurance company that doesn't end up costing around $20,000. They get their pound of flesh one way or another.

The American model has been engineered by insurance executives and their favoured politicians. Fifty million people go uninsured while CEOs earn tens of millions of dollars a year. (George Paz, CEO of online pharmacy Express Scripts, made $51 million last year).

The absurdly profitable health-care industry continues to lobby politicians who pass more inequitable laws that will keep the money flowing in their direction. The high cost is passed on to those who can afford to not die because they are able to purchase insurance.

It would be less expensive to pay taxes in Canada and receive Canadian health care. I'm not sure if we'll rejoin the inclusive, compassionate Canadian system and get back in line or spend the extra money and continue to contribute to the profiteers and receive better health-care services. If I could only get California Blue Cross to accept Air Miles.

Bruce Clark is a former Winnipegger living in Palm Springs, Calif.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2012 A13

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