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Single-payer Health Care: A Community Discussion

by Michael Fritz, published

single-payer healthcare

Canada’s single-payer health care system is the focus of a new documentary, The Healthcare Movie. A recent screening in San Diego, California, harbored a lengthy community discussion about the possibility and implications of a single-payer health care system in the United States. The film was produced and directed by married couple Laurie Simons and Terry Sterrenberg. It also featured narration by Kiefer Sutherland, in part due to his relation to Tommy Douglas, his grandfather, who is credited as the father of Canada’s current single-payer health care system. Tweet

The film follows Lindsay Caron, a college student from Portland, Oregon, as she interviews hundreds of Canadians regarding their thoughts on health care. An overwhelming majority favored their system, where they pay nothing out of pocket for health care. There were a number of real life experiences described by Canadians, who were interviewed for the film, offering stirring examples of the quality of care in Canadian hospitals. Overall, the movie compares and contrasts the Canadian single-payer system and the American system while bringing to light some intriguing statistics, which sparked a larger discussion of health care reform.

"The reason we made the movie is based on our personal experience of the Canadian system and of the US system and of our dismay at the way the Canadian system was being portrayed in the US," said Sterrenberg. "When compared to the anxiety that we felt trying to participate in the US system, the Canadian system seems like heaven."

Sterrenberg and Simons lived in Canada for ten years and moved to the US in 1992. In 2013 Sterrenberg fainted during a flight. Luckily, a doctor was on board and he received excellent care. When the plane landed he was rushed to an ambulance and taken to emergency care. Simons said the whole experience ended up costing over $2,500 in medical bills. Had the incident happened in Canada they would have spent nothing out of the pocket.

According to the documentary, Canada’s health care system is completely paid for by the government. There are still private doctors and private insurance companies, but rather than citizens buying insurance, the government purchases it and citizens are able to pick any doctor they wish. All Canadians are equally insured, even if they do not have a job, because all health care expenses are already paid for through taxes.

However, non-medically essential expenses, pharmaceuticals and vision for example, are not paid for by the government. These are covered by supplemental private insurance which citizens can receive from employers. Although free health care for all is a major benefit, there do tend to be longer waiting times on certain procedures. If it is not an emergency a person may have to wait a couple weeks to a month. Procedures that need to be expedited, cancer treatments, or necessities for the terminally ill are prioritized and have little to no wait.

Tweet: Would you support a single payer system? Tweet

“We certainly aren’t saying that Canada’s plan is perfect,” says Simons. She attested there may be wait times but this is something she says can be fixed. “How it’s financed is key.” Simons acknowledged the regulations created by Obamacare as a step in the right direction, but held some reservations. “We’re not done, we’re not even close, we like Obamacare but that doesn’t do the job, it doesn’t address how health care is financed,”

Following the screening, Dr. Bill Honingman, certified in emergency medicine and full time emergency room physician, opened up the topic for further discussion. Honingman shared his experiences where people without health insurance would walk in for treatment. He mentioned the most frequent ailments he saw were dental problems. Every night he would see at least one person who had neglected a bad tooth. Honingman argued the price for dental work, even with insurance, is too high.

The most stunning story Honingman revealed in an interview with IVN was about a 28-year-old man. Now off of his parents insurance plan and attending college, who had the flu and fainted due to lack of fluids. Upon passing out he hit his chin on the ground and shattered his jaw.

“Do you know how much that’s going to be to get his jaw wired? That’s about as much as a college education.” said Honingman. “We can do better than that, and the way we do it is by socializing the payment plan of health care.”

A number of people had an opportunity to speak on the issue and discuss what needs to be done in order to change legislation in favor of a single-payer system.

There was an attendee who preferred to remain anonymous for the publication of this article, she works in the pharmacy benefits industry and pointed out what she described as negligence within her field.

“The people who are deciding whether or not your insurance company will pay for your medicine are making decisions that are absolutely awful," she said. “They are missing a heart.”

She is currently transitioning out of the pharmaceutical insurance industry to get into holistic health care.  She explained even in holistic health care is money driven. She argued, holistic health care has proven to be extremely helpful, however insurance companies refuse to accept holistic coverage because "big pharma" has too much influence.

Geri Jenkins, a retired UCSD nurse and past president of the California Nurses Association, spoke about her experience lobbying in Washington in 2009 for single-payer health care. Asserting the US spends twice as much money on health care than any other country in the developed world and yet in many areas of the country life expectancy is slipping back to 1950 levels. Tweet stat: Tweet

“I think it really has to be a grassroots movement and it has to be us going out and talking to our communities and making this happen because it wont happen any other way,” said Jenkins. She expressed concern people may stop talking about health care reform after Obamacare passed. “Though it may be a step in the right direction it will not cut costs the way it needs to.” Tweet quote: Tweet

Manuel Belandres, general surgeon and trauma surgeon from Virgina, said he had practiced surgery for 35 years and had seen a lot of people who could not afford surgeries which would save their lives. Balendres stated he thinks the average American is "brainwashed" when it comes to private insurance. He mentioned he had co-founded the Virginia Association of Free Clinics and they are doing whatever they can to provide health coverage for people who cannot afford it. A number of grants have helped pay for the health care of those who have been unable to receive insurance for various reasons. Belandres believes free health care shouldn’t need to be funded by grants. “We need more activists, and to do that more people need to get involved,” said Belandres. “No one gets involved, nothing happens.”

Karen Ray, a retired teacher, pointed to the political history of the fight for single-payer healthcare in California. She said a state-level single-payer bill (SB-840) was passed twice by California voters, but both times Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. Ray pointed out the bill was vetoed, but still had the support of voters, and encouraged others to keep trying.

According to the Physicians for a National Health Program, Vermont was the first state to change their health care system into single-payer healthcare with their H. 202 bill. William Hsiao, who also designed Taiwan's single-payer health care plan was hired to design the proposal for Vermont. It passed the Vermont Senate in April of 2011, and signed into law shortly thereafter.

Other states have made steps to move to a single-payer health care system as well. In 2010 the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee endorsed a resolution which called for a passage of single-payer health care. According to the Illinois general assembly website, In Illinois HB0311 was introduced and went through the first stages of the Illinois Senate from 2007 all the way through 2009. They postponed any further hearings until 2011 where they continued to shape the bill through 2012, and have again postponed all further hearings regarding HB0311 until an indefinite date.

Dawn Dershem, a retired school teacher, purchased the film and bought a license for public viewing saying she did it all for the benefit of her family and community.

"This is the last item on my bucket list," said Dawn. "I can die peacefully when I know that every person in this country, including my own children and grandchildren, have single-payer universal improved medicare for all!"

Anyone is able to host a screening or buy a copy of the movie by visiting You can find a trailer for the movie here: Single-payer health care movie trailer

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