Commentary: A look at universal health care

We need health care reform. Period.

Any time working American citizens cannot afford insurance, any time providing insurance can eat up the profits of small businesses and any time pre-existing medical conditions can send insurance premiums into the stratosphere, we need to take a closer look at our health care system.

It is not always laziness, skewed priorities or indifference that causes some 47 million Americans to go without health insurance. Sometimes it simply because there's no paycheck left after paying for food and shelter.

Still, the cost of getting well continues to climb.

Is a single-payer system the solution? If so, where can we look to find a universal health care system that is affordable and accessible?

Not Canada, according to Maureen Sloan, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Canada, where she grew up and worked as a registered nurse.

The universal health care system there, configured independently by each province, is financially broke, Sloan said, just like our Social Security program here.

She said about 11 percent of her paycheck earned as a nurse in Montreal more than 16 years ago went to taxes, to pay for universal health care.

"Some will say, 'We don't complain because it is free.' But it is not free. They pay very highly for it," she said.

What Canadians get, she said is often long waits to see a specialist, to undergo tests, or to have surgery. Members of her family, including her mother, still live in Montreal under that system.

Regardless of your economic status, everyone is treated the same, she said, although a supplemental insurance or a secondary provider can be purchased to get more timely care.

"In this country, we see health care as a basic infrastructure of our society," Sloan said. "Most of the rest of the world would not see that. It is not a right, but a privilege.

"Too much government involvement will diminish the quality of care and cause long, long waits," she said. "There needs to be a choice."

Alison Courtney, who lived in France for 13 years and gave birth to her two children there, said government intervention in health care there was a blessing.

She said universal health care in France allowed her to give birth and leave the hospital, after a five-day stay in a private room, paying 22 euros or about $31 at current rates of exchange. That was for the telephone in her room, she said.

Courtney filled out papers when she moved there to live with her husband, a native, and was covered soon after.

"I'm pretty glad I had my kids over there," she said.

There definitely were long waits to see a specialist she said, sometimes about a month. But that, she said, was more a result of having too few doctors. Getting in to see a dentist or ophthalmologist could be "really bad," she said.

The French government pays 65 percent of the cost, and people buy a supplemental policy to pay the rest for a nominal fee.

Paying for health care did take a chunk out of her paycheck, said Courtney, who is now divorced and living in Lexington without her children. The difference in her monthly paycheck between gross and net pay was about 353 euros because of taxes. That's about $503.

"That was for a safety net that includes more than health care," Courtney said, explaining that it included such things as unemployment insurance and other benefits. The family learned to live within their means.

"Everyone who works pays into the system," she said. "And, unfortunately, the system runs at a deficit, so it's definitely not perfect.

"And while I don't plan on moving back to France any time soon, I do miss the serenity of universal health care," said Courtney. "I don't think it's a question of socialism or whatever, it's more a question of civilization. I'd rather see tax dollars going to fund a single-payer system than to fund a couple of wars, know what I mean?"

She no longer has health insurance.

"I'm taking my chances," she said.

And that's her choice.

Unfortunately, without a solution to the rising costs of health insurance, fewer of us will have a choice.