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BY DAN KEETON
In the heartland of the most severe cuts planned to public health care, the Romanow Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada recently held the third and fourth of its 18 hearings into possible changes to the Canada Health Act and the publicly funded Medicare system it was designed to protect.
On March 12 the royal commission, headed by the ex-premier of Saskatchewan, New Democrat Roy Romanow, stopped in Vancouver, before heading to Victoria March 14.
The commission has heard strong voices from both the pro-Medicare and the forces aiming to privatize all or part of the country's public health care system. Mainstream media accounts of the hearings have presented both sides in a kind of pro-and-con debate of equal proportions. But Michael McBane of the Canadian Health Coalition, who has attended the hearings since they kicked off in Regina March 4, said most Canadians back publicly funded health care.
"Canadians aren't debating the core values of Medicare. What it is really is a major propaganda offensive by private industry." They own the media and hence capture the debate on health care, said McBane, whose coalition is backed by organized labour and a host of community and student groups across Canada. "It's the people whose wallets literally will be fattened by privatization who are advocating [privatization]."
Those favouring privatization included the right-wing economic think tank Fraser Institute and Dr. Brian Day, who acknowledged his Cambie Surgery Centre was the first "general private, for-profit hospital in Canada." Opposition to privatization came from, among others, BC Nurses Union president Debra McPherson. She told the commission, "All these profit hunters care about are returns to investors, cutting costs through slashing wages of health care workers and providing Cadillac services for those that can pay and reducing services to those of us that can't pay."
The Canadian Health Coalition believes that the Romanow Commission will help expose that majority opinion, said McBane. For its part, the coalition wants not only to preserve the current public system, but also expand it to include a national home care and pharmaceuticals.
Public health care in Canada is at a crossroads, says the Coalition, which will make its own presentation to the Commission in Ottawa on April 4. The Coalition pressed for a royal commission "because...provincial governments were dismantling and privatizing by stealth." Without public debate, there is no way of challenging those decisions, said McBane. If enough Canadians make their voices heard, that will be reflected in Romanow's report to Parliament, expected in November, he asserted.
Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, however, has been critical of the process. Barlow reportedly called the commission's tour a ruse that will distract Canadians while provinces chop and privatize more medical services. Barlow also said commission hearings are intimidating to average health care users. The Council is holding parallel hearings in 15 centres the commission is visiting.
Meanwhile, leaked internal documents released by the Hospital Employees Union have revealed severe cutbacks in acute care elective surgery and ambulance services, cutting back Pharmacare, axing six planned capital projects and laying off up to 28,000 public health care workers. The briefing notes are part of the strategy of cuts and privatization planned by the B.C. Liberal government.
Some advocates of health care privatization claim they're just initiating "experiments" to see if it works, McBane observed. But free trade agreements like NAFTA and the incoming General Agreement on Trade in Services stipulate that private sector services can't be nationalized, or renationalized, because that would constitute an unfair trading practice. "It's fundamentally deceptive to say that this is just an experiment. They know they're deliberating sabotaging the public system," said McBane.
The Columbia Journal
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