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The American Politics of Canadian Health Care

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She's back. Shona Holmes, the Hamilton, Ontario native who became a poster child for the American right wing in 2009 as the debate over health care reform roared to life, is starring in a new Koch Brothers-funded Super PAC ad warning voters about the pitfalls of socialized medicine -- and not only that, she's hanging around the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte all week and available for interviews. Given all the talk about the tidal influx of corporate money into the American electoral process since the Citizens United decision, if the best spokesperson the Kochs can come up with to star in their $27-million fear-mongering campaign against the ACA is an outsider whose complaints about her native land's health care system have been thoroughly debunked, that's some pretty weak-ass sauce. Can you imagine the reaction on the right if an Obama-supporting Super PAC ran an ad featuring Canadians demanding higher taxes on the rich? Cries from the Fox News cabal about filthy foreigners tampering with the sacred trust of American elections would be positively deafening.

The message of the ad is that because the Canadian health care system allegedly failed Ms. Holmes, Americans should run as fast as they can in the opposite direction. This one Canadian (out of about 34 million) claims she had a bad experience, so let's stick with the disastrous version we have now rather than pursuing a model that is so treasured by the Canadian people because of its success that no party dares broach the subject of changing it lest they suffer massive electoral blowback. I find the right wing's approach to attacking programs they don't like (read: They haven't figured out a way to make money off) amusing in that it's always the all-or-nothing gambit. They're always looking for the insignificant opening into which they can bludgeon the moneyed weight of their angry wedge. A single slip-up, to them, warrants the dismantling of an entire organization -- just as the appearance of a couple of bad apples in a malicious, heavily edited, out-of-context amateur video was grounds for taking apart ACORN (the real reason being that ACORN was instrumental in getting a lot of Democratic voters to the polls). It's as facetious and flimsy a position on which to build an argument as suggesting that if a single brick in the Great Pyramid of Giza cracks, the entire thing might as well be dynamited. But it's all you have when the only reason you can offer for being against something is that you don't happen to like it very much.

It's telling indeed that Shona Holmes would be dragged out again three years after her initial appearance on the scene. The Kochs probably couldn't find anyone else. For Canadians, what is almost as universal as our health coverage is our pride in our system -- and our gratitude that getting sick in Canada doesn't mean a financial death sentence. Several years ago I was hospitalized for a serious lung condition, requiring X-rays, painkillers, and finally an intercostal tube drainage treatment. My total bill for my week-long stay: $12, for the optional phone at my bedside. Everything else was covered by the program I pay into with my taxes, and nothing required was withheld because it wasn't on my plan or whatever other spurious reasons the private companies invent to deny care in the U.S. And my experience is not unique. As to the myth of Canadians dying as they wait for needed surgery, it's just that. The Canadian system is based on triage -- urgent cases go to the front of the line and everyone else is placed in priority sequence. Decisions about who goes first are made by medical personnel (with apologies to the ex-Governor of Alaska, not once has any Canadian been forced to file a request with their local Member of Parliament before calling their doctor). In the case of Shona Holmes, she was diagnosed with a benign cyst, and rather than waiting as recommended by a doctor she chose to cross the border and pay over $100,000 to the Mayo Clinic to have it removed immediately. And with respect to her complaints about being attacked for expressing her opinion, if you are going to become a shill for U.S. corporate and political interests by spreading specious half-truths to every camera in sight because you didn't get your lollipop right when you wanted it, you can't be that shocked if more than a handful of folks decide to disagree with you. Free speech goes both ways -- that's how the concept works. (People shouldn't have been calling her home to yell at her of course, but that's just more proof of how passionately Canadians support and believe in their system of health care.)

It took an incredible effort on the part of President Obama, the Democratic Party and its supporters to overcome the blockades thrown up by Republican obstructionists, corporate lobbyists, lawsuit-happy state attorneys general and Tea Party zealots to get the ACA passed, half-baked half-measure as it may seem to many liberals and progressives who were longing for something more transformative. Building on this act to craft a truly fair health care system where no one ever needs to fear getting sick in America ever again is going to take even more, and unfortunately the political damage borne by the Democrats for taking it on has made the issue something of a third rail. But it should provide some comfort to those Americans dreaming of a single-payer program like Canada's to know that the side fighting to keep the status quo has no real argument to make. They may have more financial resources, more members of Congress in their pocket, but at the end of the day, it's all smoke and mirrors -- their hand is empty. They just don't like health care, and if you're looking to win the conversation with the people, truth is a much better starting point.