08/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Americans Lives vs. Insurance Company Profits: The Real Battle in Health Care Reform

Lying about health care -- indeed, fear-mongering about health care -- has ramped up as insurance companies attempt to keep their profits. Those profits are created by a system where the U.S. spends 5 percent more of its economy on health care in exchange for the worst results of any Western nation. To insurance company executives, their profits, their executive salaries, and their bonuses, are not just worth lying for, but also worth killing for -- or at least letting people die.

The Shona Holmes Health Care Hitjob

Case in point: Shona Holmes is the current poster girl for the liars slandering Canadian health care in an attempt to discredit reform. Ms. Holmes alleges she was horribly endangered by Canada's healthcare system:

Both CNN and McConnell made a big deal out of Shona Holmes, an Ontario woman who claims she was forced by Ontario's health system to go to the United States for life-saving surgery for a brain tumour. She claims that in 2005 delays in access to treatment at home made it necessary to go to the Mayo Clinic in Arizona and pay $97,000 for her care.

Her story sounds bad, doesn't it? Except, of course, it's a lie:

On the Mayo Clinic's website, Shona Holmes is a success story. But it's somewhat different story than all the headlines might have implied. Holmes' "brain tumour" was actually a Rathke's Cleft Cyst on her pituitary gland. To quote an American source, the John Wayne Cancer Center, "Rathke's Cleft Cysts are not true tumors or neoplasms; instead they are benign cysts."

There's no doubt Holmes had a problem that needed treatment, and she was given appointments with the appropriate specialists in Ontario. She chose not to wait the few months to see them. But it's a far cry from the life-or-death picture portrayed by Holmes on the TV ads or by McConnell in his attacks.

In other words, her condition was not immediately life threatening, and it was prioritized accordingly. But Holmes didn't want to wait behind people who needed care more than she did, so she went the U.S. where she could pay out of pocket to jump to the head of the line.

Health Care Triage: U.S. Vs. Canada

Here's the deal: both the U.S. and Canada prioritize patients, and both engage in health care rationing. In Canada health care is prioritized by how urgently a patient requires treatment. In America, to a much greater extent, access to medical care is prioritized by how much money the patient has. Someone in the U.S. who was sicker than Ms. Holmes was forced to wait longer for treatment because Holmes was rich enough to pay $97,000.

A Personal Perspective on Canadian Health Care

I should add that I have firsthand experience with how the Canadian system prioritizes treatment. In 1993, at the age of 25, I became very ill with ulcerative colitis. I was hospitalized, and put on very expensive drugs. About a week after being hospitalized, the nurse watching me called in my doctors on a Sunday because I was deteriorating so fast -- pain killers were no longer having any effect (i.e., high doses of morphine were not working), I wouldn't let anyone touch me, and I was becoming delirious. At about midnight, they wheeled me into the operating chamber and took out my large intestine. While they were digging around, they found out I had appendicitis, and they took that out too. It would have burst within 2 days, and in my weakened state, it would have killed me.

Unfortunately, one of the treatments for ulcerative colitis involves immune suppressing drugs. My immune system basically shut down, my liver almost shut down, and I spent almost another 3 months in the hospital, riddled with extremely painful and crippling infections and other problems. At one point I was on 9 drugs; one of them was an antibiotic so expensive that only a single doctor in the hospital could approve it. My gastroenterologist called the treatment the equivalent of "pouring gold dust into your veins." I wasted away, my weight dropping below 90 lbs. I often joke that I was old young: I've used a walker, crutches and cane.

The Universal Health Care Bottom Line

The ultimate point of my story is simple: I got the care I needed, when I needed it, and I never paid a single red cent.

Which is good, because I couldn't have afforded to pay. I was young and had very little money. The kind of care I received, even back then, would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the U.S.

If I had lived in the U.S., my parents would have faced a choice between paying for my incredibly expensive treatment or watching me die. They were both old and it would have wiped out their savings entirely and thrown them into bankruptcy. Frankly, I don't know how they could have supported themselves. My life, at that cost, would have had too high a price. I wonder how many Americans have had to make that calculation.

But I survived, and neither I, nor my parents, was bankrupted. In similar circumstances I doubt all of those things would be true for an American 25-year-old trying to survive the same medical condition in America's health care industry.

Health Care Rationing, American-style

I have had two American friends die in the last 5 years who would have survived if they had had fully covered health care. (Note I didn't say health insurance, that's not what people need. They need health care.)

One of them died of the flu. He didn't seek treatment because of the cost of his insurance co-payment, and he was found dead.

Another had a heart condition, but didn't know it, because she didn't have health care, because she couldn't afford it. If she'd had health care, she would probably still be alive.

Both of those people are dead because of people like Holmes, and the people behind her. My two friends are dead because insurance company executives want to keep their obscene salaries, and force Americans to pay more for health care than they should.

So What's the Health Care Reform Fight Really About?

Billions of dollars are at stake in the battle for American health care reform. That's the sort of money executives, and their lobbyists, and their bought-and-paid-for politicians are willing to kill for: to let you, or your friends, or your family suffer and die. Think of your dead friends and relatives as collateral damage in the fight for health industry profits; that's how the insurance executives see them.