What's Better: Broke but Healthy, or Broke and Sick?

November 30, 1994|By JOE MURRAY

ANGELINA COUNTY, TEXAS — Angelina County, Texas. -- "Look Who's Broke,'' declares the front-page headline from the big-city newspaper. Gee, I thought for a moment I'd made the news.

A follow-up headline explains, ''Canada Paying High Price For Its Social Programs,'' which include universal health care as well as generous old-age pensions, extended unemployment insurance and all sorts of other goodies.

''We are in hock up to our eyeballs,'' Finance Minister Paul Martin told the House of Commons Finance Committee. ''That can't be sustained.''

Not surprised.

Those critics who defend U.S. health care by insisting that Canada's system is woefully inferior, in my opinion, have always been on the wrong page. The problem is not its effectiveness; rather, cost-effectiveness.

Two years ago, I spent a couple of weeks driving across the eastern section of our friendly neighbor to the north, finding out how the folks in Canada liked the health care they were receiving.

I talked with the elderly, the disabled, employers, employees -- and almost to a person they said treatment was dandy. It's the taxes that were damning. A sampling from my old notes . . .

* A retired occupational therapist in the dairy community of Woodstock, pop. 30,000, said she personally had no problems.

''You have your appendix out, and it's absolutely free.''

Except, of course, nothing's free. ''We pay for it, sure,'' she allowed. ''Taxes, taxes, taxes.''

A few examples I noted at the time: Gasoline cost about $2 a gallon; cigarettes, $5 or $6 a pack; a bottle of rum, hardly $12 in the U.S., as much as $40.

* In Toronto, a Greek-Canadian businessman who had gone out of business blamed the tax system for his failure.

''Canada was once a good country, but it has gone so far down it will never recover,'' he said. ''We cannot survive the way it is.''

On an income of $60,000, I was told, you could expect to lose 40 percent to income taxes. Employers are taxed 1.98 percent of their payroll to underwrite basic health care for everyone, whether employed, unemployed or retired.

* A housewife from a suburb called Scarborough, whose husband was left an invalid after a car wreck, had no complaints about health care -- ''except the waste.''

She told this story:

''One chap, a Canadian who was a drug addict, was visiting the U.S. getting treatment and went to ten different clinics. The bill was a million dollars and some twit [bureaucrat] paid it. That's terrible waste that hurts the program for everyone.''

A horror story, indeed. But here's one even scarier.

Canada's total national debt amounts to $700 billion, which in U.S. dollars is $18,750 for every man, woman and child in that country.

In the United States, our national debt is $4.6 trillion, or $18,000 per person -- none of whom benefits from universal health care.

At least the Canadians, hardly any broker than we, are getting what they can't pay for.

Joe Murray, editor-publisher emeritus of the Lufkin (Texas) Daily News, is senior writer for Cox Newspapers.

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