WESTERN STANDARD COLUMN: Alberta needs to try it the Lithuanian way on health-care

Where would you rather have a life-changing surgery: within your province or in a former communist country more than 7,500 km away?

Well, you might be surprised some people are making the decision to jet from Canada to eastern Europe for major surgeries. 

They can hardly be blamed. The Canadian health-care crisis has been getting steadily worse for decades.

Tens of thousands are dying while waiting for care. Wait times are the highest they’ve been since the Fraser Institute began tracking this problem thirty years ago. It’s very understandable some would choose to leave the country and pay for care elsewhere.

So why don’t provincial governments make it easier for patients to do so?

In the European Union, there’s a policy called the Cross-Border Directive. Patients who live in the EU have the right to travel to another EU country for surgery, pay for it and then be reimbursed by their home country. Reimbursements cover up to what it would have cost the government to provide the procedure done at home.

SecondStreet.org recently hired Leger to poll Canadians and see what they think of this policy. 

The results were overwhelming, with 74% of respondents being in favour of Canada copying this policy, while only 10% disagreed. This is up slightly from when SecondStreet.org polled Canadians on the same topic a year ago (72% in favour).

It’s easy to see how this European policy could help thousands of Canadians. Take, for example, the story of Len Granson, who lives on a farm not far from Rimbey, AB.

In a phone conversation with SecondStreet.org, Len shared how he was in need of a full right-hip replacement. He had been struggling with pain in his hip since 2021. It got to the point where he was crying himself to sleep many nights. His doctors prescribed him Percocet, a strong painkiller, but that came with the potential for serious long-term health problems, such as heart conditions.

He took the drug for about a year. Even so, the pain was so bad he could barely walk up stairs. Unsurprisingly, he had to take time off of his job as a power engineer at a gas plant.

After waiting two years, with no date for a surgery, he gave up on the Canadian system.

After searching online, he discovered the Nordbariatric surgical clinic in Lithuania. Len gave them a call and was able to book his surgery across the Atlantic within a month. He was impressed by the exemplary service. The surgery itself cost about $11,000, before travel costs. Everything went well, and he needed minimal after-care when he got home to Canada.

In a developed country such as Canada, there is no reason normal, working people such as Len should have to wait years for essential surgeries. However, the government-run system has been so inefficient for so long patients often only have two options: languish on waiting lists, or travel somewhere else.

The Cross-Border Directive would expand options to more patients such as Len. Travelling for surgery is not an ideal solution as many would prefer to be close to home and their families. However, this policy helps patients get their lives back and reduces suffering.

Patients such as Len could be allowed to expense surgical costs in other provinces or other developed nations. Suddenly they could have access to thousands of options and reduce wait times from ‘years’ to ‘weeks.’

This European policy also benefits people who don’t choose to travel for their care. Every time someone leaves the country for surgery, everyone behind them on the waiting list moves up a spot. 

It’s clear Canadians want this option. While Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has spoken favourably about this idea before, Alberta has yet to take any concrete steps to implementing it. 

If the premier does follow suit, more patients would receive the care they need in a timely manner. Isn’t that the point of the system?

Dom Lucyk is the Communications Director with SecondStreet.org, a Canadian think tank.

This column was originally published in The Western Standard on November 11, 2023.

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