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Point of View: Canada exposes the false promise of Medicare for All

Democratic presidential hopefuls seem determined to bring Canadian-style health care to the United States. From Sen. Bernie Sanders' vision of Medicare for All to the slow-motion approach to single-payer favored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others, every candidate has a plan for universal, taxpayer-funded health insurance.

Americans who find these plans appealing may want to take a look at how single-payer health care has unfolded across our northern border. They won't like what they see.

In 2019, Canadians waited about as long as they ever have for medical care, according to newly released research from the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank. The median wait to receive treatment from a specialist after receiving a referral from a primary care physician was 20.9 weeks. That's well over double the median wait in 1993, when Fraser began tracking wait times.

Imagine waiting more than five months for a doctor to address your heart arrhythmia or joint pain.

Canadians have to pay an awful lot for the privilege of waiting for care. Last year, the average Canadian family of four paid $13,311 in taxes to fund this inefficient system. In 2018, care delays cost Canadians about $6.3 billion in lost productivity — roughly $5,800 per patient.

Medicare for All would force this Canadian reality on Americans — and then some. Sanders' plan aims to cover even more than the Canadian health care system, including dental and vision care. Americans could expect even longer waits and higher costs.

And they'd have no choice but to wait, as Medicare for All would ban private health insurance from covering anything deemed "medically necessary." Canada's single-payer system does the same. And as a result, over 1 million people — 3% of the population — were waiting for care in 2019.

There are even significant delays for basic diagnostic care. The median wait for an MRI in 2019 was nine weeks. That shouldn't be surprising, given that Canada has 25 percent fewer MRIs per capita than the United States.

Such delays endanger Canadians' health. Problems that could have been addressed early on morph into serious conditions that require expensive interventions or leave patients disabled.

Waits sometimes prove fatal. Up to 63,000 Canadian women may have died prematurely due to increased wait times between 1993 and 2009.

For these victims, Canada's promise of "universal coverage" was nothing but an empty slogan. Health insurance does little good if it doesn't guarantee access to care.

Many Canadians opt to leave the country instead of waiting in line. In 2017, Canadians made more than 217,000 trips abroad for health care, according to research from the think tank

One such "medical tourist" was the Canadian crooner Michael Bublé. When his infant son was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2016, Bublé did not seek care for his child in his home and native land. He moved his family to California, where doctors at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles helped his son beat cancer.

Not all patients are so lucky. Just ask Richard Baker, chief executive of Timely Medical Alternatives, a company that helps Canadians seek care in the United States.

Baker tells the story of an 8-year-old girl with a severe ear infection. She went to the United States for care after Canada's health care system cancelled her primary care appointment four times in one year. A U.S. specialist quickly realized that the infection had spread to her brain. He saved her life but couldn't prevent permanent deafness in one ear and impaired hearing in the other.

Politicians who claim Medicare for All would provide free, high-quality care are making a false promise. Canada's health care system isn't an ideal to aspire to. It's a system the United States should avoid at all costs.

Pipes is president, CEO and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.