Happy thoughts won't cure us

Oh boy. I can't wait. No, not for another bronze medal. In less than a month, Paul Martin sits down with the premiers and reveals in front of the TV cameras his sure-fire secret plan to fix medicare for a generation. I do hope it's not just "Think happy thoughts." Recent portents in the newspapers are not encouraging. First, a story in Monday's Citizen said a study presented at this week's Canadian Medical Association annual meeting called for a "culture of safety" to cut down on the thousands of medical errors that injure or kill patients every year. Well, it's either that or incentives. I congratulate the medical profession for tackling a topic that, especially at first, can only bring them bad publicity. But now that it's on the operating table, let's think of ways to reward people who correct mistakes and punish those who conceal them. You know, the way private firms that acquire a reputation for sneakily putting people's health at risk lose customers and go broke. Whereas in a state monopoly they, um, yes, well, gee this could be tricky. Hey. Let's urge doctors to really, really care about people's health. Yeah. That's the ticket.

Another story in Monday's Citizen started: "A major public education program is needed to encourage Canadians to donate their eggs or sperm to those requiring help creating a family now that payments are outlawed, say the authors of a Health Canada-commissioned study." Well, it's either that or incentives. Much as I hate to talk sense in the middle of a Canadian public policy discussion, if you were, say, urging people to recycle for the good of the planet and also paying them a nickel a pound for old glass, then you stopped paying them, would you get more glass, the same amount or less? Right. Everybody knows. Except the people in charge, like Dalton McGuinty.

For Tuesday's Citizen said Ontario's premier just admitted a national pharmacare program would involve "significant costs," but the feds managed to cut taxes four years ago and "Today, the federal government is now telling us that health care is their No. 1 priority. It seems to me if there's a will, there's a way." Yeah. Think happy thoughts.

Of course it's important to stay positive in a crisis. If you think you're going to fail you very probably will. But staying positive means making a determined search for a good way forward, not ignoring the need for same. And since Mr. McGuinty has been in provincial politics for 14 years now, studying, one assumes, the main item in the provincial budget with intelligence and determination for much of that period, it's high time he stopped issuing petulant demands that someone else come up with a workable plan. Only toddlers, teens and liberals do that.

In fact, I am sorry to report, his strategy might resonate with many voters. The CMA recently commissioned a poll in which nearly four in five Canadians (78 per cent) said health care should get only a fixed share of total provincial revenue. Mind you, they probably also think it should be funded properly. Yeah. And I think I should be six foot three (sorry, 190 cm) with $10 million in the bank. The difference is I know wishing won't make it so.

Practical problems with Canadian health care are so common that it is becoming trite to draw attention to things like hospitals reusing what are meant to be disposable devices. But it is important to stress our politicians' habit of taking a "floggings will continue until morale improves" approach to such problems, and the largely unexamined underlying assumption that all that's ever really wrong is people's narrow, nasty refusal to think happy thoughts. Of course a private firm also seeks employees with a can-do attitude. But if it doesn't give them sufficient resources so they actually can do, it perishes. Tragically, socialist planners and their wishful-thinking allies face no such challenge, and it shows.

Look: Doctors don't reuse disposable devices because they are evil. They do it because the planning system isn't giving them enough resources to do things right. And if Health Canada does, as threatened, introduce more rules about not breaking existing rules, it will either have no effect or else make hospitals throw out disposables after one use despite having no replacement device for the next patient which might, in turn, have some negative repercussions that can't be wished away. But they will try.

Canada is mostly run by people on the wrong side of the long public policy debate between those who think practical methods are what matters and those who place their faith in good intentions, especially their own. You know, the sort who promise to fix medicare for a generation not because they've actually thought of a way of doing it but just because they care so darn much.

Less than a month, folks.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson