22 September 2009

U.S. Medicare battle -- remember Saskatchewan

As Americans wage a verbal war over President Obama's medical care proposals, we Canadians should not be too critical of the unseemly behaviour of some of the participants. We might recall the battle over medicare we waged in this country. As a son of Saskatchewan, where the fighting took place, I remember well the descent into name-calling and fear-mongering.

I don't remember anyone referring to Tommy Douglas as Hitler, or anyone bringing guns to the many demonstrations, but I do remember a prominent Catholic priest removing his collar and loudly proclaiming that Communism was descending upon Saskatchewan. The Medical Care Insurance Act was passed in November, 1961, and came into effect in July, 1962. The same day it came into effect, 90 per cent of the province's doctors went on strike. Keep Our Doctors Committees, supported by the media, launched well-organized and well-funded campaigns against the government. Rallies and petitions fired the political climate to a white heat. The government responded by bringing in doctors from Britain and encouraging others from the U.S. and other parts of Canada to help meet the emergency. Local citizens established medical clinics and hired doctors to staff them.

The struggle in the U.S. is, like the struggle in the early 1960s in Saskatchewan, about much more than medical care. As David Shribman recently pointed out in an article in The Globe and Mail, it is about power, about the relationship between the people and their government.

There is a similarity in the times. The paranoia and economic uncertainty of today reflect the red scare of that earlier period. American individualism and greater distrust of government will give an even greater intensity to their fight than was experienced in ours.

The good news, of course, is that in this country it had a happy ending. Within months of the Saskatchewan legislation coming into effect, the Keep Our Doctors support had dissipated, doctors were returning to work, and the government had amended the Act, including giving doctors the right to practice outside the plan. Mistrust lingered, but by 1965 most doctors supported the plan and within ten years every province had one of their own. Today it is an integral part of Canadian culture.

It will be much more difficult for the Americans to come to terms with the patchwork efforts they are being offered. We can only wish them the same happy ending.

No comments:

Post a Comment