It isn’t the nicest thing to think about, but if accident or illness strikes, you could end up receiving unwanted treatment.
But in 1994 things will change. The living will or advance directive – a document clearly stating a patient’s wishes about how they want to be treated – will become part of the doctor-patient relationship.
A trio of acts passed last December – the Advocacy Act, the Substitute Decisions Act and the Consent to Treatment Act – allow, albeit in rather vague language, for Ontarians to set out in advance which medical procedures they would or wouldn’t accept and let’s them name a proxy in case they are incapable of expressing their wishes.
This vague language – intended to allow patients to customize their wishes – means that writing a living will can prove to be a troubling and confusing experience.
To aid decision-making, the University of Toronto Centre for Bioethics is offering advice through a “model” living will.
The centre’s Dr. Peter Singer has geared the “model” to meet Ontario legislation and to offer a guide for anybody who doesn’t know where to begin.
“We put a lot of detail in the advance directive about states of incompetence people get into, and also the sorts of procedures providers might recommend in those health states.”
Singer sees living wills as an effective tool aiding patients to control their own health care.
“Unless the doctor is a longstanding friend it’s hard to know what patients want. As a practicing doctor, I have run into an incompetent person where their family member has no idea what sort of wishes the person would have wanted. The goal of a living will is to provide the personal care the patient would want.”
But there is a danger. Dr. Singer urges the need for informed and detailed language in a living will.
“If I have a couple minutes to make a decision I need a document that gives me a lot of confidence that this person wouldn’t want this treatment.”
In an emergency, the doctor might not even know of the living will’s existence. Dr. Singer advises giving a copy to your family doctor, lawyer, or proxy, and keep one with you at all times. When so-called “smart” health cards come along, Dr. Singer would like to see the living will recorded on the magnetic strip along with other health information.
Many of today’s seniors fought for Canada’s internationally-admired public health system. But more and more people are becoming worried that the combination of health care reform, funding cutbacks and free trade is fuelling the growth of a second tier of private medical services serving the well off.
The provincial government sees things differently, arguing Ontarians no longer expect government to pay for everything and rather than eroding medicare, the NDP is reinventing it.
Whichever way one looks at it, private insurance companies, homecare providers, labs and other services designed to make money are becoming more and more involved in the health care business.
Operating in the territory outside the guidelines of the 1984 Canada Health Act – which sets out the principles of medicare for the federal government to enforce – the private sector has room to expand, at the same time as OHIP coverage is scaled back from more and more services.
Janet Maher, whose Ontario Health Coaltion (OHC) represents doctors, nurses and other health care workers, worries for the future of medicare.
“A number of things like accomodation services – laundry, food services – are in the grey area of the Canada Health Act,” says Maher. “So with all these fees that are being introduced, by the strict letter of the law, there is no way to stop them. But as far as we are concerned the spirit of the Act isn’t being observed.”
In its current reforms, the government of Ontario is emphasizing paramedical professions like midwives who fall outside the CHA and aren’t covered by OHIP. The turn to community-based services means that people have to rely more on services and providers that aren’t covered under the CHA.
Maher says privatizing accomodation services is a recent phenomenon, the result of hospitals finding creative ways to trim their budgets.
“It’s a new area that hospitals are taking bids on,” she says. “The other thing around the accomodation services is that because they are not categorized, strictly speaking, as health care services, none of this is exempted in the Free Trade Agreement from U.S. competition.”
A recent report by two British Columbia researchers tries to put together this complex puzzle. Jackie Henwood and Colleen Fuller of the 7,500-member Health Sciences Association of British Columbia recently charged that a combination of free trade and budget-slashing governments is eroding the universality of medicare and ushering in a two-tier system.
Fuller and Henwood identify the Free Trade Agreement as the culprit. While the health care industry created more jobs than any other sector of the Canadian economy between 1984 and 1991, they point out the job growth has been concentrated in the private sector since free trade was implemented in 1989. And they expect worse under the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“NAFTA will accelerate trends towards a privatized, non-union and corporate-dominated system of health care in Canada.”
One provision of the Free Trade Agreement has also made it possible for U.S. companies to compete against Canadian firms in health care. Chapter 14, “health-care facilities management services”, allows wide-open competition.
Under NAFTA, provisions will bind all levels of government to consider for-profit health care companies on both sides of the border on equal footing with public providers when bidding for services, and entitles them to compensation if they can prove to an arbitration board they’ve been wronged.
“That represents a substantial encroachment on the democratic right of local, provincial and federal governments to make decisions,” says Cathleen Connors, who chairs the national wing of OHC, the Canadian Health Coalition.
It’s this plus health care cutbacks – federal and provincial – that’s resulting in service and job cuts and bed closures in the public sector and an increase in privatization, say Henwood and Fuller. These opportunities have not gone unnoticed by private companies south of the border.
One such company is American Medical Security Inc. (AMS) of Green Bay Wisconsin. After hiring Canadian pollsters Angus Reid to do a survey, AMS saw a profitable market in offering American hospital insurance to frustrated Canadians awaiting surgery. Sixteen per cent of those polled said they wanted this service; that was enough for AMS.
“One thing that comes across loud and clear is that Canadians for the most part are happy,” says spokesperson Carrie Galbraith. “They know they are taken care of during an emergency. But they are willing to pay a little extra if they need care.”
So far, AMS offers its plan to Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba, with Toronto its best market. Galbraith says plans are in the works to expand to all of Canada except the territories.
Unfortunately, like most private health plans, AMS cuts its losses by avoiding what Galbraith calls “adverse selection” – anybody with a known serious health problem need not apply.
Here in Ontario, private for-profit home care services take in close to half of all OHIP billings. Many clients pay out of their own pockets for additional services.
The Ontario health ministry doesn’t keep statistics on the extent of the private home health care sector, says spokesperson Layne Verbeek. But the Ontario Home Health Care Providers’ Association, a trade group, estimates private homecare companies now employ 20,000 and serve more than 100,000.
“It’s a market situation,” says Henwood. “If the services aren’t available to people within the public sector, they will go outside of it. We’ve seen this in other countries like England, where they had a public system and now have a parallel private system. If you erode a system enough that people get angry, they are going to start to look for alternatives, and the people with the greatest liberty are those with money.”
But in a recent interview, health minister Ruth Grier was adament this scenario wouldn’t be allowed to take place in Ontario. She strongly disagreed that medicare is being weakened due to recent changes, and said the government has actually “reaffirmed its commitment to medicare.”
Some fear corporate health care will kill equality of treatment
By David South
Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), April 8-14, 1993
American-style private health care is slipping across the Canadian border under the noses of three provincial NDP governments, say researchers representing an association of health care workers.
Jackie Henwood and Colleen Fuller of the 7,500-member Health Sciences Association of British Columbia charge in a recent report that a combination of free trade and tightfisted government spending is undermining the universality of medicare and ushering in the beginnings of a two-tier system.
While the health care industry created more jobs than any other sector of the economy between 1984 and 1991, they point out, things have changed dramatically since the Canada-US free trade agreement came into effect in 1989. Now much of this growth is clustering in the private sector.
And they expect that this trend will continue under the forthcoming North American free trade agreement.
“NAFTA will accelerate trends towards a privatized, nonunion and corporate dominated system of health care in Canada,” says the report.
Chapter 14 of the Canada-US free trade agreement opened competition for health-care facilities management services to US companies. Certain NAFTA provisions will bind all levels of government to consider for-profit health care companies on equal footing with public providers when bidding for services, and entitles them to compensation if they can prove to an arbitration board that they’ve been wronged.
“That represents a substantial encroachment on the democratic right of local, provincial and federal governments to make decisions,” says Cathleen Connors, who chairs the Canadian Health Coalition, which includes labour activists, nurses, doctors and other health-care workers.
This, in combination with health care cutbacks – both federal and provincial – is resulting in service and job cuts, bed closures, increased drug costs and an increase in privatization, the report says.
In the area of home care, for example – visiting nurses, physiotherapists, homemakers and other services – private firms now take in close to half of all OHIP billings. Many of their clients pay out of their own pockets for services.
The Ontario ministry of health doesn’t keep statistics on the private home health care sector in the province, but the Ontario Home Health Care Providers’ Association, a trade group, estimates that private firms in the industry now employ 20,000 people.
The industry is dominated by a small number of large firms, including Paramed, Comcare and Med+Care.
“It’s a market situation,” says Henwood. “If the services aren’t available to people within the public sector, they will go outside of it.
“We’ve seen this in other countries like England, where they had a public system and now have a parallel private system. If you erode a system enough that people get pissed off, they are going to start to look for alternatives, and the people with the greatest liberty are those with money.”
Connors says that because the Canada Health Act only covers the provision of hospital and physician services, the prinicples of universality and comprehensiveness don’t extend down to community-based services like home care.
The study also found that giant US private health insurers are positioning themselves to reap profits in the fertile Canadian market.
Last week, Wisconsin-based American Medical Security Inc. announced it will begin offering American hospital insurance to Ontario residents this month, citing a demand in Canada to bypass lengthening waiting lists for medical treatment.
Giant US west-coast insurer Kaiser Permanente declared in the March 1992 issue of Fortune magazine that they have targeted Canada as the next growth market. And American Express membership now offers the privilege of health insurance.
With private health care services sprouting up like spring weeds, says Henwood, provinces are placing yearly limits on the number of private services covered under provincial health plans, thus preventing people shopping around for services, no matter what their income.
Sheila Corriveau, corporate relations coordinator at Toronto-based Dynacare, Canada’s largest full-range private health care company – which operates labs, retirement homes, homecare services and consulting services – is enthusiastic about expansion plans, and says that removing patients from hospitals into their homes has been a boon for private health-care services.
“I think the health system will benefit, because what you are really doing is off-loading the cost from the public sector and from the treasury to private enterprise,” says Harry Shapiro of Dynacare. “Private enterprise depends on its own ingenuity for survival and its own levels of efficiency.”
But advocates of the public system say the free-market option now looming is being ushered in by the very parties that Canadians have come to rely on to defend medicare.
Ontario’s new health minister, Ruth Grier, however, denies her government is jeopardizing medicare.
“I want to disagree with that as profoundly as I can,” she says, fidgeting with an ashtray during a recent interview. “Our government has reaffirmed its commitment to medicare. Over the last decade, under conservative and liberal governments, health care costs have increased in double-digit figures. The system would have collapsed at that rate of growth.
“I guess I haven’t found a way of blaming free trade for failures of the health care system at this point,” she says.
But critics say in the last year alone, Ontario’s ministry of health has capped health coverage for travellers abroad, removed coverage for physical exams requested by employers, chopped hospital beds and cut back the number of drugs covered on the provincial drug plan.
Grier says that the government’s vision relies on a new view of medical care seekers as consumers who are going to take more responsibility for their own health care
“Government can’t do it all,” she says.
More investigative journalism by David South for Toronto’s Now Magazine:
More healthcare reporting by David South from Canada’s Today’s Seniors:
If the results of a nation-wide survey of doctors are right, Canadian physicians love medicare but abhor government attempts to make them accountable for its costs. It also suggests that doctors are more willing to talk about cutting services to seniors and people with “unhealthy lifestyles” than to discuss cutting their own wages to save money.
However, according to some doctors, physicians’s anger with the provincial government is founded on ignorance and poor analysis of the larger forces affecting health care.
The survey, Breaking the Wall of Silence: Doctors’ Voices Heard at Last, was commissioned by The Medical Post, a national newspaper for doctors. It sent questionnaires to 12,000 doctors, receiving 3,087 responses. The Post also conducted in-person interviews to better gauge the mood of doctors.
The survey’s title is somewhat misleading, considering that doctors have been making noise over a number of issues this year; targets included proposed right-to-treatment legislation, cuts to the Drug Benefit Plan, capping of yearly billings at $450,000, and inquiries into charges of sexual abuse by doctors. And most significantly, the last conference of the Canadian Medical Association passed a resolution calling for a two-tier health system in which those with money can hop the queue.
Post editor Diana Swift says the poll shows fairly strong support for limiting services to the elderly, although the survey question is short on details: “I feel it is reasonable that access to high-cost services such as transplants should be rationed according to such parameters as the patient’s age and/or unhealthy habits.”
Yet just under 70 per cent of doctors opposed any capping of their salaries, despite 56 per cent of the public supporting this measure according to a 1991 Globe and Mail-CBC poll.
When questioned, Health Minister Francis Lankin expressed surprise that doctors felt so strongly, and denied the government is considering rationing services to seniors. Lankin feels the volatile mood of doctors is a reaction to the rapid changes taking place in health care.
Dr. Michael Rachlis, health care critic and author of the book Second Opinion, says the survey’s low response rate means that the answers reflect “redneck physicians, who are more likely to respond.” Swift admits to a high response rate from young male physicians, who since the 1986 doctors’s strike in Ontario, have been considered the profession’s most militant.
One response which some may find alarming was towards the “Oregon model.” In that American state, medical procedures are rationed to seniors and individuals covered by medicare. Anybody needing uncovered emegency treatment has to pay for it themselves. A disturbing 65 per cent of survey respondents supported such a move.
Dr. Gerry Gold, associate registrar at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, feels that some doctors lack perspective. “The complaints are a reflection of frustration with increasing involvement of government. But if physicians understood the role of the government in the U.S., they would realize they, along with insurance companies, intervene far more.”
Gold says doctors have had the same complaints ever since the beginnings of medicare. “Many front-line doctors lack the information to make informed comment,” he says. “They aren’t being consulted or informed by the government.”
Rachlis says many doctors fail to realize how privileged they are. “Canadian physicians don’t realize medicare has protected their autonomy more than in the U.S.,” he says. “Doctors are always angry because they have large chips on their shoulders from being brutalized in their training. They don’t realize the government has given them a privileged monopoly over health services. With a guaranteed income with job security, I don’t know one doctor who has suffered in this recession.”
Gold doesn’t foresee strikes or job actions by doctors, but predicts further government cuts, and more services being de-insured by OHIP. A recent example involved removing coverage for third-party medical exams such as those requested by employers or insurance companies. As medical procedures end up outside of OHIP, Gold foresees physicians charging whatever they like.
A perennial idea is the user fee. This is one of the few ideas that gathers support from a majority of doctors and the general population alike. But Rachlis feels these measures are meanspirited and avoid the real problems plaguing health care. “When Saskatchewan introduced user fees for physician and hospital care in 1968,” he says, “health costs remained the same and it discouraged the elderly, the poor and people with large families from seeking service.
“When providers are allowed to charge users for care, as in the United States, where more than 20 per cent of health care costs are paid our of pocket, overall costs go up.”