Saskatchewan Leads the Way to Canadian Medicare

 

Peace of mind can be sought by individuals in numerous ways, including meditation, yoga, religious worship, nature exploration, and physical exercise. But sometimes, when factors blocking personal peace are external rather than internal, this quest cannot be satisfied by individual endeavor alone.

A case in point is access to medical care. Should it be based on need, or ability to pay? If the latter, those without sufficient income to cover essential medical expenses will never enjoy peace of mind. Yet, that is how Canada was before 1962, when North America’s first universal, comprehensive medical insurance program came into effect in Saskatchewan.

The idea of Medicare had been present in Saskatchewan since the Depression, when Reeve Matthew Anderson introduced a municipal medical care program in the rural municipality of McKilop in 1939. Five years later, the province elected a new CCF Government, led by Tommy Douglas. He soon showed his passionate commitment to easing the burden of medical costs by introducing a universal hospitalization insurance program in 1947. But it was not until the 1960’s that his government felt ready to bring in a full-fledged Medicare program.

I was a high school student in Regina in the early 1960’s, and can well remember the fierce acrimony of the Medicare debate. Tommy Douglas was Medicare’s champion during Saskatchewan’s1960 election, making it his central campaign pledge. With its victory in that election, the CCF had the people’s mandate to proceed with the Medicare act. Douglas steered the legislation through the Saskatchewan legislature until it was adopted in late 1961. Responsibility for putting it into effect (in mid-1962) was then passed to the new premier, Woodrow Lloyd.

Lloyd faced a phalanx of vitriolic opposition from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Canadian and American Medical Associations, provincial media, business interests, the provincial Liberal Party and pressure groups such as the Keep Our Doctors Committee. All were claiming that this “socialized medicine” would destroy the doctor-patient relationship, drive most of our doctors out of the province, and create a woefully inferior standard of medical care.

My mother discussed the issue with our family doctor who opposed Medicare, while she supported it. They agreed to disagree, although this became increasingly difficult when Saskatchewan’s doctors went on strike for three weeks in July 1962. British and other European doctors came in to fill the gap, and finally an end to the strike was mediated. Medicare was then free to operate across the province.

Amazingly, all the supposed issues disappeared almost immediately. There was no government interference in the doctor-patient relationship. Doctors were paid by the government at the going rate, sometimes more quickly than before. Efficiently run, the program became so popular that other provinces soon followed suit.

Then in1966, the Canadian Parliament adopted the National Medical Care Insurance Act, providing for federal-provincial cost-sharing. By 1971, all provinces had Medicare in place, and access to medical care had become a basic right for all Canadians.

For this, a tip of the peace-building hat should go to Matthew Anderson, Tommy Douglas, Woodrow Lloyd, and the people of Saskatchewan who refused to bow to Medicare’s fierce opponents in 1962.

 

By: D.J. Kiddo

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