An open letter to the CBC in response to "Medicare Schmedicare"

December 9, 2005

Dear Sirs and Madams:

Last week John Doyle of the Globe and Mail told us that the CBC had decided not to air a documentary on Tommy Douglas – which would inevitably discuss the birth of Medicare - because it might be perceived as indulging in partisanship during a federal election.

Last night the CBC aired a show on the Passionate Eye, “Medicare Schmedicare”, which dismissed Medicare and celebrated the glories of being able to pay directly for health care.  

This “documentary” didn’t tell us how a private for-profit system would cope with people who are really sick.

It failed to document one instance of these companies’ treatment of a serious or complex illness, an emergency life-and-death situation, or a case of communicable disease.  

It interviewed only people who had thousands of dollars to spend on what they felt they needed, right now, whether it was medically necessary or not.  

It informed us that if these health businesses discovered something complicated or serious, the patient was referred to a medical specialist right away …. in the public system.

But if you have a hankering for routine diagnostic tests for absolutely everything, with or without symptoms of illness (“almost 4%” of these tests revealed something might be wrong, medically) or a quick surgery that can be classed “non-medically-necessary” – hey, come on down; and bring your wallet.  

Boy, that’s really useful information.  What a public service, especially for the 50% of working Canadians making less than $25,000 a year. That’s right – something under $2,000 a month, before taxes. Half of us.

For the last three elections, Medicare has been the top of mind issue in Canada, and for good reason. The media keeps warning that the public system won’t be there for us when we need it.

On Monday of this week, the Globe and the Star had decided that there is no difference or debate among the three federal leaders on Medicare.  More commercial health care is inevitable.

The CBC has joined these ranks, with unabashed bias.  Last night we were told the “socialist” revolution is over; long live “choice”.  Those who think Medicare is the better way are simply sentimental.

This despite the mountains of evidence that show Medicare is the most economically efficient system and the fairest, most compassionate system that has yet been designed.  

It took the better part of a century to get here, from the first cooperative on the prairies in 1906, to municipal plans in the 20s and 30s, to a rash of provincial schemes in the 40s and 50s, to a vision that was and remains national in intent – health care is not just another service, it’s a right of citizenship in this country.  

That’s a long arc of history.  It didn’t happen by accident.

Half a century ago, the Toronto Star and the CBC weighed in, against all odds and against mainstream thinking, with stories and editorial positions that made a compelling case as to why it was important for the feds to support and broaden a program that could benefit all Canadians, nomatter what part of the country they lived in or how much money they made. Some of those stories explained what happened to people when they had to pay for care when they got seriously ill.  Some told of alternative ways of organizing access to care. Taken together, they created a litany of hope, even expectation, for a better deal for everyone.  

It is fair to say these media outlets made a huge difference in what happened next.  Untimely deaths were avoided for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Canadians.  People of all walks of life and all income levels enjoyed longer, healthier lives. Households weren’t crushed by the financial costs of illness.

Today’s opinion makers, including the CBC, rarely reflect on what we already have, let alone build momentum towards a bold new vision for all members of society.  The shiny new thing that is getting the news is a very, very old idea – people with money can, and should, buy more stuff. There is virtually no coverage of the impressive improvements that have occurred in the past few years in the public system.  The theme is Medicare as a black hole, not a treasured public asset.  

How out of touch with public opinion can you get? Or are you, as in the past, trying to remake public opinion?

As any parent knows, it is easier to take something apart than build it, and way quicker.

When I first read about the CBC decision not to air the Tommy Douglas documentary, I could see a certain logic to that position, though I didn’t agree with it.

Your subsequent decision to run “Medicare Schmedicare” is worse than irrational and incoherent.  It is an utter repudiation of your very reason for existence: a voice for the public interest, across the whole country, and for the majority of the public.  

I suppose you could excuse the papers’ position: in the end they are simply investor-owned, shareholder-driven enterprises.  What’s the CBC’s excuse?

The CBC owes Canadians better balance, and it can’t come soon enough. You have an obligation to reflect the public interest as it affects all citizens. That includes those who have fewer choices by virtue of their earning power, and who have so much to lose.  

The debate on what our future holds - as individuals and as a society - is far from over, and far too much is at stake.

With sincere wishes that you revise your policy quickly,

Armine Yalnizyan
Consulting Economist
Research Associate, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
First Recipient, Atkinson Charitable Foundation for Economic Justice