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The Other “Medicare”

July 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m surprised that it’s taken me so long to devote even a cursory post to health care in Canada (or as it’s referred to back home, “medicare”). After all, as my disclaimers page says, “if the blog title didn’t give it away, I’m Canadian.” However, a recent series of posts at Medscape’s medical student blog “The Differential” [free registration required] inspired me to take on the subject.

I want to make clear at the outset that this post is intended to be descriptive. My thoughts on Canadian medicare and its implications for proponents of single-payer in the US can wait for another time.

Before delving into the Medscape commentary itself, we should begin with some general background on health care in Canada.[1]

***

[1] – Much of this background was assembled while preparing a presentation that for the first  health economics course I took in university. I have done my best to bring things up to date. Depending on the minutiae of when laws are introduced vs. passed (and which of the two you refer to), some of the earlier dates in the History section may be 1-2 years off from what you read in some other sources.


History


Canadians feel strongly about their medicare. Most of them love it, or at least love the idea of it. If you’re a politician wanting to discuss the system in terms of anything other than providing more funding for the system, you’re likely to be toast in short order. And don’t even think about promoting “two-tier” health care! Governments at the federal and provincial level have risen and fallen based on the health care issue; it’s a major component of provincial government spending, and many Canadians view medicare as a component of national identity.

Government involvement in Canadian health care began in earnest in 1944, when the government in the province of Saskatchewan introduced a system to provide free health care to the elderly and retirees. This was followed shortly in 1947 by a public hospital insurance plan featuring a $5/person/year premium. In 1959 the socialist government of Tommy Douglas (considered one of the “fathers of medicare“) announced the first universal public health insurance program in Canada. Needless to say, Saskatchewanian (Saskatchewanite? Saskatchewanish?) physicians were wildly opposed, even going on strike for a few weeks in 1962.

A decade later, the ideals that drove the new program in Saskatchewan came to fruition on the national stage, as medicare was introduced in the remaining Canadian provinces beginning in 1967. This was not done in one fell swoop. The constitution in Canada has established health care as the domain of the provinces. The federal government rolled out medicare across the country not by fiat, but by offering matching funds (now block grants) to provincial health plans that met certain legislative criteria; this has given the federal government an important role in both financing and “regulating” provincial health care plans, though in recent years the federal share of health financing has fallen as low as 15-20%, with the rest paid by the provinces. In this sense, the structure of Canadian health care financing more closely resembles that of US Medicaid than of US Medicare. It should also be noted that both the earlier and current iterations of provincial health plans covered mostly to exclusively hospital and physician services: no home care, drugs, devices, etc.


Federal Legal Framework


By the mid-1970s, the last Canadian province had signed on to medicare and the program was not due for another major shake-up until 1984, the year the Canada Health Act was passed. The CHA is still the current governing framework for public health care in Canada. It re-affirmed the five basic criteria and two conditions for federal funding, but unlike the previous federal legislation, the CHA more clearly authorized the federal government to withhold transfer payments as a penalty for provincial transgressions.

The CHA imposes 5 basic eligibility criteria for provincial plans to receive federal support.

  1. Public administration: each province’s health plan must be administered by a publicly-accountable, non-profit entity. In practice, this is usually a government agency or arm’s-length government-owned insurer.
  2. Comprehensiveness: all “medically necessary” services must be covered, though provinces get surprisingly wide latitude in defining what is medically necessary.
  3. Universality: all residents of a province must have access to public insurance on the same terms and conditions. In other words, all insured must be equal, and all are equally insured. The Act defines “insured persons” in such a way that treatment sought under worker’s compensation or auto insurance regimes escapes some of the dictates of the Act. In addition, provinces are allowed to impose minimum residency length requirements (e.g. 6 months in Ontario) before residents are eligible for coverage; in some provinces, this even applies to Canadians moving from other provinces.
  4. Portability: provincial plans must reimburse insured persons for medical services used during temporary absences from the province, at least at the rate specified in the provincial plan’s fee schedule.
  5. Accessibility: access to coverage must be uniform and barrier-free. There can be no discrimination or disparate treatment based on age, income, health, etc. On the provider side, provinces are required to have a clear and transparent fee schedule, with providers being “reasonably” compensated.

In addition, the CHA imposes two more specific conditions on funding that cut more closely towards health care delivery, as opposed to the five conditions that govern financing.

  1. Balance-billing (or “extra-billing” as it’s sometimes called in Canada) is banned. Physicians and hospitals are not allowed to charge provincially-insured persons for provincially-covered services in addition to the province’s payment for the service. This is similar to US Medicare’s ban on balance-billing.
  2. Provinces are not allowed to impose “user charges” for insured services. This became an issue recently as the government of Quebec toyed with the idea of introducing modest co-pays for some services for some insured. Not allowed.

The result is a “system” that’s not just one system. Each province (and possibly each territory?) has its own provincial health insurance plan that is run subject to the constraints of the Canada Health Act. The federal government administers health plans for members of the armed forces, the RCMP, and First Nations living on reservations. Worker’s compensation and auto liability insurance also play small roles.

The provincial plans are the major players, and are what most people in Canada and the US think of when they discuss the “Canadian health care system.” Though the criteria laid down by the CHA result in the appearance of national uniformity (and to be fair, a good deal of actual uniformity) in how health care is financed, administered, and delivered in Canada, there is a good deal of meaningful variation between provinces.


The Private Sector


One important dimension of variation is the role of the private sector in delivering and insuring services that are covered by provincial plans.  As of 2005 (I haven’t looked more recently, but am unaware of major changes since them):

  • Four provinces (QC, AB, BC, PEI) allowed physicians and other covered providers to set their own fees for providing covered services without billing the province. However, these provinces did not allow any reimbursement of patients or providers for covered services not billed to the province. In addition, these provinces banned private insurance coverage of any service covered under the provincial plan, even if delivered in the private setting.

    In 2005, a physician and his patient sued the Quebec government, arguing that the ban on private insurance coverage of privately-delivered publicly-covered medical services violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially given long waiting times for treatment in the public system. The case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that the prohibition violated the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Given that the decision was grounded in QC provincial law, it had only limited direct impact in the other three provinces.

  • Three provinces (ON, NS, MB) forced providers going outside the public payment system to charge at the public fee schedule. They also banned private insurance coverage of privately-delivered care that was also covered by the provincial plan, though two of these provinces (ON, MB) reimburse patients for out-of-pocket expenses paid to private providers.
  • Three provinces (SK, NB, Nfld) allowed unfettered private delivery and private insurance for services covered by the provincial health plans. Newfoundland would reimburse patients for out-of-pocket expenditures to private providers up to the provincial fee schedule, whereas SK and NB provided no reimbursement for private expenditures.

     

  • Private diagnostic clinics were beginning to emerge in three provinces (QC, ON, AB) in response to a pervasive lack of timely access to diagnostic imaging services. Though these clinics operated outside the public system, Ontario and Alberta actually contracted with some of them to provide services to public patients. For those with the means, however, payment could secure an earlier appointment for imaging, shortening the amount of time waiting for a diagnosis, and where applicable allowing earlier entry into a queue for treatment.


A National Single-Payer?


One of the features of health care in Canada that is often overlooked by proponents of single-payer in the United States is that Canada as a whole does not have a “single payer,” which means it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about details. Covered services, the quality and quantity of care provided, and physician/provider payment vary across provinces. Not earth-shatteringly so, but enough to introduce a small modicum of inter-provincial competition for physicians, and “competition” in services and benefits mediated through political pressure (e.g. “Patients in BC can get this drug, why won’t you pay for it here in Nova Scotia!”). Given the perennial importance of medicare as a political issue, the importance of popular pressure to increase funding and expand services should not be trivialized.

It’s also worth pointing out that about 30% of Canadian health care spending is individuals’ out-of-pocket payments for things like drugs, home health, hospital amenities, and other non-covered services. This is 2-3 times the fraction of health care spending in the US that comes directly out of individuals’ pockets in exchange for services received.


Unions, Public Employees, and Hospitals


Contrary to what I’m told is common belief in the US, most Canadian physicians are not government employees. Though some provinces hire doctors for what I surmise are analogues to Community Health Centers, the vast majority of physicians are independent contractors paid on a fee-for-service basis according to the provincial fee schedule. In Ontario, some family physicians practicing in so-called “Family Health Teams” are capitated, and some emergency physicians are paid by the hour. An interesting wrinkle is that some provinces have hard caps on how much a physician can earn in any year; obviously this creates disincentives to working so hard / so much that the cap would be reached in a year. (It’s not just hypothetical: I have a few physician friends in Canada who have made great strides in their golf game as a result of this cap).

Hospitals, on the other hand, are closer to highly-regulated public utilities. In Ontario, most hospitals are non-government or arms-length, non-profit entities. Most of their money comes from a “global budget” (i.e. “this is your budget for the year”), though there have been experiments with US Medicare-like prospective payment systems for certain conditions. Patients also pay per-diem fees for non-covered amenities (e.g. private inpatient rooms, phone and TV service as inpatients). Provinces (or regional health authorities, or whichever provincially-created entity is in charge in a given province) have at least some control over hospitals’ capital spending. In Ontario, regional health authorities determine what sorts of specialty services and facilities are available at which hospitals within their purview. Hospitals are allowed to engage in public fundraising for capital campaigns; I’m not sure how this interacts with provincial controls on capital spending.

Physician licensing and governance is a point of special interest to me. There is the usual plethora of physician groups, specialty societies, etc., similar to what is found in the US. However, given the effective monopsony power of provincial governments in the market for physicians’ services, provincial medical associations have emerged whose main function is to represent physicians in fee schedule negotiations with government. Canadian physicians seem to have more input into provincial fee schedules than American physicians do into Medicare fee schedules. Whereas American physicians set the relative weights of various services in the Medicare fee schedule (and only indirectly lobbying for changes in the monetary conversion factor), Canadian physician organizations typically negotiate for dollars directly with government.

The Ontario Medical Association is one of these organizations. Unlike groups such as the American Medical Association, their orientation (and their website!) is very physician-centric. In addition to negotiating the terms of the provincial fee schedule, the OMA also sets maximum rates that physicians can charge for certain non-covered services (phone consultations, insurance forms, etc.).

Physician licensure and discipline is also done at arm’s-length from government. Unlike in the US, where medical licenses and disciplinary action are typically the domain of state government medical board, most (if not all) Canadian provinces have allowed the medical profession to remain somewhat self-regulating. For instance, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is the licensing and disciplinary body for physicians in Ontario. Its governing body is composed of 16 physicians elected by their peers, 3 physicians selected from Ontario’s 6 medical school faculties, and 13-15 members appointed by government. Also of note is the fact that many provinces, including Ontario, condition licensure on the Canadian equivalent of specialty board certification. The opposite conditionality holds in the US.


By the Numbers


It would be foolish to try to replicate this series of three posts at the Healthcare Economist, where Jason Shafrin does a wonderful job of collecting the major summary statistics for infant mortality, life expectancy, access to care measures, and physicians per capita.


Next Time


In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss common American medical student perceptions of Canadian health care (as exemplified by the post at The Differential mentioned at the outset, and with some telling anecdotes from March’s AMSA conference), along with the always-hot topic of waitlists for treatment.

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