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Dodging the health insurance minefield

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), 1992

Don’t leave home without it. No, not American Express Travellers cheques but health insurance. With changes to OHIP coverage for out-of-country hospital visits and rising U.S. health care costs, any snowbird who pays a visit to an American hospital will face hefty bills. To make things even more complicated, the recent growth in competing travel health insurance schemes in Canada has created a minefield of policies that must be entered with caution.

Luckily for snowbirds, the newly formed Canadian Snowbird Association is trying to make these changes a little easier to cope with. Formed in March, the Association boasts 8,500 members and is looking for more. They hope to advocate for the rights of snowbirds and collect information on private insurance plans to help seniors make the right decisions.

Communications co-ordinator Don Slinger says he will have a list of appropriate private health insurance policies ready by the end of August. The Association has been meeting with private insurance companies to find out the best plans.

“Snowbirds shouldn’t be in a hurry to get insurance,” says Slinger. “Many insurance companies are using the situation to exploit panic-stricken seniors.”

Slinger warns snowbirds never to go down to the U.S. without extra insurance on top of OHIP. “OHIP is just a drop in the bucket of the cost of a stay in an American hospital. Unfortunately, a lot of people still take the chance.

“I had been going south for 12 years without a problem until a ruptured appendix. It ended up costing me $12,000 for an eight-day hospital stay.

“When we met with the government they weren’t sympathetic. They said snowbirds are a wealthy group and can afford the payments. However, a lot of people are on fixed incomes and won’t be able to afford to go south with these higher costs.”

Slinger advises against buying coverage after arriving in the U.S. The Snowbirds Association emphasizes that it believes in medicare and will fight hard to ensure it provides full coverage for seniors.

Gerry Byrne, a vice-president at non-profit insurers Blue Cross warns against buying U.S. insurance because companies require a medical exam and skim off the healthiest people for full coverage. But Blue Cross itself will introduce rates based on age and medical conditions in September.

American health insurance plans have long been criticized for hurting older seniors and those with ongoing medical conditions. In these schemes, the healthiest seniors pay low premiums while seniors with chronic conditions are saddled with higher rates or, worse still, refused coverage. Unlike medicare – which covers everybody regardless of their health – private insurers are tempted to reduce their costs by covering only the lowest risk group – favouring the young and healthy.

Unfortunately, a quick survey of travel health insurance plans shows this trend to be in full bloom in Canada. Credit card companies, which have recently begun to offer travel health insurance, are revising their conditions. The Royal Bank’s Visa Gold card will drop coverage for seniors over 65 starting Nov. 1. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Scotia Bank Visa cards still offer coverage to seniors – but both are revising this. American Express’s annual plan has no age limit, while its per trip plan has a higher rate for seniors between 60 and 74 and doesn’t cover anybody 75 and over.

Suzanne Deul, who helps market the Toronto Dominion Bank Visa card, blames the insurance companies for changes. “Because of high costs, the pressure is on to change policies. We are trying to be more equitable but the insurers want age restrictions. In some ways it could be justified to charge more for people who attract higher costs.”

With so many health insurance companies losing money covering seniors, the challenge for private insurers is to make covering seniors profitable without excluding people. To this end, Robin Ingle, president of John Ingle Travel Insurance, has instituted changes to increase the money available for more expensive hospital stays.

“About one-third of our policy holders are over 65, and we have a lot of snowbirds. This group is only getting bigger, so instead of raising rates and placing restrictions, we increased the number of policy holders to include a broad range of people young and old.”

Ingle blames rising U.S. health care costs for making it unprofitable to provide health insurance to seniors. His company has set up an office in Florida to prevent hospitals overcharging Canadians and has negotiated deals with some hospitals for lower rates. John Ingle Travel Insurance offers special rates for seniors’ groups and gives a 10 per cent discount to members of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

Three years ago there were 10 companies in Canada offering travel insurance; now there are over 50.

According to Ingle, many of the neophyte companies are losing money. “I predict the whole industry will shrink because they have had high losses and can’t take care of their clients. I would advise seniors to watch out for companies that might not be around a year from now.”

Ingle says seniors should also beware of glitzy marketing and flashy pamphlets and read the fine print to make sure the policy covers their age and medical condition.

Irene Klatt of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, which represents all private for-profit insurers, advises seniors to look for insurance plans that have toll-free numbers that can be called 24 hours a day in an emergency. This will cut down on hassles with American hospitals which will not admit patients without insurance. The Association also has its own toll-free advice line staffed by seniors from the insurance industry. Klatt warns that her association represents all for-profit insurers and can’t favor one scheme over another but does have a pamphlet that offers advice on choosing insurance.

Insurance, of course, isn’t enough to ensure a healthy stay. Irene Turple of the Canadian Association on Gerontology has some helpful health tips: “Discuss your trip with the family doctor. Make a list of all your medications; and remember – the names of the drugs can be different in the States. If you have an echocardiogram handy, bring it along. Make a health diary listing your medical history. Remember that physicians aren’t all-knowing and if you can provide as much medical information as possible it can make a difference.”

Turple also stresses getting immunized for the flu before going to the States and remembering to cover up from the sun.

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Opinion: Canada is allowing U.S. to dictate Haiti’s renewal: More news and opinion on what the UN soldiers call the “Haitian Vacation”

By David South

Id Magazine (Canada), August 22 to September 4, 1996

An August 19 attack on the Port-au-Prince police headquarters by pissed-off former Haitian soldiers should be a wake up call to Canadians. So far, the Haiti UN mission has seemed as safe as the soldiers’ quip, the “Haitian Vacation”. The UN soldiers patrol the capital in rickety Italian trucks, stopping to chat with the locals. On the surface, this mission looks like summer camp compared to the nightmare of enforcing peace in the former Yugoslavia.

But for one crucial factor: The UN troops are propping up an increasingly unpopular government. A government that is seen by many Haitians to be getting its orders from Washington, not Port-au-Prince. Canadian troops lead the UN mission in Haiti and make up 700 of the 1500 soldiers stationed there (the rest are from Pakistan and Bangladesh). There is a serious danger they will be caught in the crossfire of any uprising or coup attempt.

Canadian troops shadow president Rene Preval 24 hours a day and also guard the National Police. When I visited the dilapidated palace in July, with its handful of Canadian troops banging away on laptop computers, I could only hope nobody will want to mess with the UN.

The two prongs of Haitian renewal – reforming the economy and the justice system – are both being directed by the U.S.. Haitian senator Jean-Robert Martinez had a theory about the August 19 attack, which killed a shoeshine boy. Martinez believes it was in retaliation for government plans to privatize Haiti’s rotting nationalised industries – a condition for receiving loans from the U.S. and the Washington-based International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Haiti is a good example of the carnage of cynical U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. wooed and then coddled the corrupt Haitian elite to run its sweatshops. As the “development” organization USAID once said, Haiti could be the “Taiwan of the Caribbean”. The U.S. trained the Haitian death squad Front pour l’Avancement et le Progres Haitien (FRAPH), who then littered the outskirts of Port-au-Prince with the bodies of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s supporters during the dark days of the 1991 coup.

Three weeks ago American troops from the 82nd Airborne plopped down on the streets of Port-au-Prince to spend a week patrolling. What kind of message does this send? This tells the Haitians that the UN isn’t the real deal; that if they get out of line, the Americans will kick their butts. Why does Canada allow the U.S. to undermine the credibility of our peacekeeping mission?

More visits by the Americans can be expected. It is no accident that a medical team attached to the 82nd Airborne remains on duty at the American base in Port-au-Prince.

The so-called justice reforms are mostly window dressing. Canada spent $4,750,000 to build and renovate court houses for the same corrupt judges that were the problem in the first place. That’s the equivalent of punishing a thief by buying him/her some new furniture.

Rather than telling the Haitians to tighten their buckles around hungry bellies, Canada should be leading the fight to pave roads and provide clean water and social services to all. Canada should not be helping to impose austerity economics on the Western hemisphere’s poorest country.

David South is the Features Editor of id Magazine

“U.S. Elections Update: Clinton is using Canada to keep control of Haiti”.
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Truckus Maximus: The Big Boys With The Big Toys Do Some Hardcore Pogo At Monster Truck Show

“I got laid off too many times. Now, I work harder for less money. But I get to do what I want to do. Not many people get that.”

By David South

Id Magazine (Canada), February 6 to 19, 1997

The little tiger-striped four-by-four is definitely going too fast. In an instant, the diminutive Suzuki stands balanced, its front wheels squashed at 90 degrees. A millisecond later, it’s on its back like a ladybug flipped over by the wind. The cacophony of the crowd reaches a crescendo. But the noise had been building; the Skydome crowd saw the writing on the wall for the little jeep. 

Frantic helpers pry open the door of the jeep, wrestling free the driver, Dwayne Robichaud. He emerges in an orange jump suit and prances around, looking vaguely like the Oklahoma bomber. The audience lets out an even louder cheer as he walks away, smug and happy. 

Half an hour earlier, two monster trucks, Young Gun and Samson, line up behind a pile of crushed cars, with a dirt ramp at each end. The methanol engines let out a roar like the mother of all hairdryers. The revving turns into a drag race. The pulsating white noise rattles the cavernous Dome. The effect on the audience is almost sexual: the stomach rattles, the heart skips a few beats. It is a short buzz, but it is good. And the noise? I begin to notice that everyone around me has ear plugs and I realize I’m going to regret this in 20 years. 

The exhaust fumes are starting to reach toxic levels 40 minutes into the rally. I shake my head and feel the motion a few seconds later. I’m getting a CO2 buzz, too. It’s the USA Motor Spectacular monster truck derby at Toronto’s Skydome. But monster trucks are just a small part of the show, there for the crowd to ogle while they get off on the noise. There is the amateur truck rally involving the tippy Suzuki and other monster-truck wannabees, and a ridiculous car-eating, fire-breathing robot called Robosaurus for the kids. The metal bashing of the demolition derby serves to satiate the audience’s thirst for damage – and is truly the highlight of the night. 

I can’t get out of my mind comparisons to spectacles in Roman times. Titans of spectacle, the Romans set the benchmark by which all other public entertainment must be judged. On the spectacular scale, Roman bloodsports involving gladiators, wild animals and the sacrificing of Christians definitely rate a 10 – anything else falls below. I figure monster trucks rate about 4. Watching pick-up trucks with over-sized $10,000 tractor tires crush cars can’t match the gore and death of ancient Rome but it will do for now. 

If monster trucks join professional wrestling and American Gladators as today’s answer to blood sports, why does this spectacle seem to lack that je ne sais quoi? Maybe it’s the sanitization of risk. The cabin of a monster truck coddles the driver. There are cushioned seats, a kidney brace, a five-point racing harness, neck braces, helmet restraints and a roll bar. Several drivers tell me that the job only looks dangerous. At half time, Young Gun’s Saskatoon-based driver, Kevin Weenks, tells me he doesn’t seek out danger. “I think some of those (amateur) guys are nuts and want to do the crowd a big favour [die]. You don’t want to run it hard. A win isn’t worth flipping over.” 

Derby destruction

Thirty demolition derby wrecks crawl into the centre of the Skydome. The flag is dropped and an orgy of car crushing begins. It goes on for half an hour. Now I’m not bored. Cars are still driving despite engine fires and rear-ends that stand at 45 degrees. It is down to two cars: one more or less intact, the other driving on its hubs, engine on fire, half its back a mangled piece of crumpled paper. The driver doesn’t give up. His engine stops, then starts again. This is repeated three times until, exhausted, he concedes defeat. 

After the derby it’s time for Robosaurus. The press release claims the hunk of grey metal stands five stories tall and costs $2.1 million. The driver flicks on the switch on a very expensive stereo system and Robosaurus starts to growl like Godzilla. Two guys with radio headsets help direct the beast onto the floor. It burps and farts for a while before picking up a pre-cut car. It crushes it, drops it to the floor and incinerates it with a flame thrower. The crowd roars.

It seems things haven’t changed with spectacles. The Romans drew on slaves, freed men, foreigners and the lower social orders to provide fodder for their spectacles. Monster trucks are driven by farmers hired for six months at a time. The amateur drivers are a hodgepodge of laid-off workers, farm labourers and guys who make a meagre living fixing four-by-fours. 

Wearing a waist-length monogrammed racing jacket is Don Frankish. The shy and patient Alberta grain farmer owns two of the four monster trucks in Canada. He has been racing for seven years and divides his year 50/50 between farming and tours on the monster truck circuit, which mostly takes him through the U.S. 

He is definitely attracted to the excitement of the stadium, but not necessarily a love of death-defying acts. “It’s the rush of the crowd as they get behind you, talking to the kids who look at you as a superhero,” he says. “I like the speed, the unpredictability. We know the risks. There is a danger to it. But the Monster Truck Racing Association makes sure we have a killer radio to shut off the engines if the truck is out of control. The worst I’ve ever seen is a truck going end over end three times – it just destroyed the truck.” I ask him about insurance and he laughs. “We can’t get insurance!”

Pit boys

Down in the pit, the air is thick with exhaust fumes. The pit boys are milling about, patting each other on the back. A sprinkling of pit girls hang around, with hairstyles straight out of Xena: Warrior Princess. The dress for today is black: black t-shirts and black jeans. Don McGuire, 32-year-old partner in the Three Stooges four-by-four shop in Brampton, sports a mischievous grin as he tells me with pride about his chosen vocation: mud bog racing. It’s the messier outdoor version of tonight’s amateur truck rally. McGuire has been a mud bog racer for 10 years and isn’t doing it for the money. “First prize is just $200 – I spring for more money than I would ever win,” he says. “We do this for the pure adrenaline. It’s just heart and soul. It takes bucks per cubic inch to win in this business,” he says resentfully, looking across the Skydome to where the monster trucks are parked. Big Foot’s sponsorship by Ford seems to be a sore point with racers who spend thousands of their own dollars to come here. 

McGuire gave up a $700 a week job to earn $300 a week and race. “I got laid off too many times. Now, I work harder for less money. But I get to do what I want to do. Not many people get that.”

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Award-winning research on history of eugenics reaps honours

By David South

Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine Newsletter (Toronto, Canada), Number 19, Fall, 1993

Though many feel a golly-gee-whiz response when medical science leaps another hurdle towards genetic manipulation, research by two recent Royal Society Hannah Medal winners into the history of eugenics sends a chill up the spine.

Both University of Toronto’s professor Pauline Mazumdar, author of Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain (Routledge, 1992), and Angus McLaren, University of Victoria professor of history and author of Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (McClelland and Stewart, 1990), disclose how mainstream genetic selection once was – and possibly still remains.

“Ever since the test tube baby breakthrough a decade ago, there’s been a new concern for the spin-offs of this research,” says McLaren. “In Canada there’s a woman who was sterilized in Alberta who is now suing the Alberta government, so that is bringing it back into the consciousness that these things actually did happen.”

“Many quite respectable individuals took it as given that there must be something in eugenics. That was the difficulty in writing the book, determining who was a eugenist and who wasn’t. It was so widely believed that it was very hard to make a serious demarcation.”

Professor McLaren found winning the medal helped raise his profile. And the resulting media interest allowed him to put the issue in historical perspective.

“The problem as ever is people looking for some sort of a quick fix to social problems – hoping that some sort of genetic tampering will allow very complex problems to be surgically dealt with.”

Hannah Institute For The History Of Medicine | 1992 – 1994

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

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