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September 29, 2000

British, Canadian Experience Shows Folly of Socialized Medicine, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2000-Even as some Americans head north to get cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, many more Canadians are heading south-to buy the drugs and vital medical services they can't get at any price under their country's highly touted system of government-run health care.

Lack of access to prescription drugs-an inevitable result of the rationing that occurs under nearly every form of socialized medicine-is only one of the problems patients encounter with the so-called "universal health coverage" found in Canada and Britain, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

Vice President Al Gore recently predicted the United States would adopt such a system "within this decade." But according to Heritage healthcare expert James Frogue, that means U.S. patients would be forced to suffer the same fate as their counterparts in Britain and Canada: long waiting lists, government rationing and substandard care.

The waiting lists for treatment in both countries, even for serious conditions, are notoriously long, Frogue says. One Canadian cardiologist, Dr. Richard Davies, recently wrote in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that "Canadian patients are being forced to wait much longer than is really necessary" for heart bypass surgery. Figures from the Cardiac Care Network of Ontario show that more than 1,500 patients were on the waiting list for bypass surgery between April 1996 and March 1997. Some died while waiting, while others were taken off the list because their extended waiting time made them "medically unfit for surgery."

The situation is hardly better in Britain, Frogue says. In 1998 more than 1.3 million British patients were on waiting lists for medical care. James Hughes-Onslow, a reporter for Britain's Daily Telegraph, recently wrote about his four-month wait to receive an operation for colon cancer. The wait was short by British standards: Hughes-Onslow said he had to "pull every string available" to move up the lists and get treated for a condition doctors say could have proved fatal.

The idyllic picture some critics of U.S. health care paint of Canada's drug situation is false as well, Frogue says. "Health authorities control drug spending by limiting the number of drugs they approve and by slowing the approval process," Frogue says. Between 1994 and 1998, the Canadian government approved only 24 of 400 new drugs. Many drugs are available in the United States months before they are approved for use in Canada.

Government-run "universal health care" also subjects patients to substandard care, Frogue says. "Budget-conscious bureaucrats seldom approve pricey new technologies, as their budgets are always stretched to the maximum," he writes. A survey of teaching hospitals in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia found that 18 medical procedures widely available to U.S. patients are not available to Canadians.

In Britain, lack of access to modern technologies and medicines poses high risks for patients, especially in cases involving cancer and cardiovascular disease, Frogue says. Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 25,000 British cancer patients have died unnecessarily.

Frogue recounts one near-tragedy in Canada: A 64-year-old patient was taking a drug called omeprazole for peptic ulcers, but government officials demanded that he switch to a less expensive substitute. Three days later, he was hospitalized and given a complete blood transfusion. After 10 more days and several more transfusions, he was able to leave the hospital. When discharged, he was again taking omeprazole.

"Supporters of government-run health care claim that such a system is best for patients and doctors, but the evidence from Britain and Canada proves otherwise," Frogue says. "Access to treatment is far from guaranteed, care is rationed by government bureaucrats, the rich and well-connected get better care, fed-up doctors flee the system, and patients suffer. Government-run health care is a prescription for trouble."

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