Editorial, Opinion

Privatizing health care won’t fix a failing system

The Quebec health-care system is in a state of crisis. ER wait times are dangerously high, and there is a chronic lack of staff—including nurses who are exceptionally underpaid and overworked. Amidst a similar crisis in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford unveiled plans to increase the role of private clinics in the health-care system—a lead Quebec Premier François Legault seems to be following. However, privatization is a step towards undermining Canadians’ right to life by creating a system that prioritizes only those who can afford care. In order for universal health care to live up to its name, Canadian  politicians must work to transform the single-payer system so that health care is truly accessible to everyone.

Apart from overall poor infrastructure leading to long wait times for all, systemic racism remains rampant in the Quebec health-care system. Forced sterilization of Black and Indigenous women continues without large-scale inquests, and in 2020, Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, died after racist negligence at the hospital where she sought care. Minute forms of racism also permeate medical care, including the underestimation of pain for Black and Indigenous people, which leads to lower pain-medication prescriptions and poorer outcomes. 

Meanwhile, Quebec’s health-care crisis is creating a workers’ rights catastrophe as nurses and orderlies are subjected to inhumane working conditions and the lowest median pay in the country. The largest union of Quebec nurses filed a complaint with the United Nations due to their forced overtime—which they describe as forced labour. The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), which runs the Montreal General Hospital, also plays a role in the oppression of workers, alongside the institutional racism it perpetuates against its staff andpatients. The crises of overwork and poor health care reinforce each other: When staff are too exhausted to properly do their jobs, then patients suffer as a result, creating a larger strain on the single-payer system.  Government funds must be more efficiently allocated to ensure that staff are treated with respect and not exploited for their labour. 

But instead of taking measures to address the staffing crisis, there are still unreasonably high barriers to entry across medical degrees. Medical school acceptance rates such as McGill’s are unrealistically low, and the process favours wealthy applicants. Such obstacles also extend to the recognition of foreign medical degrees. Highly-qualified health-care workers, with degrees mainly from the Middle East and Asia, are not recognized, and many must entirely restart their degree or clinical requirements—which is often a pricey, tedious process that keeps skilled workers from doing their jobs.

Although the public health-care system is in crisis, privatization is not the way to solve it. Just look south of the border: In the U.S. in 2022, 31.6 million people did not have any health insurance, while 43 per cent of working-age adults were inadequately insured. In a privatized system, where there is no incentive to serve poor, working people, health-care facilities will mainly emerge in the wealthy downtown core, where they can service rich clientele. Privatization efforts and paid clinics will eliminate the concept of health care as a human right

Despite what politicians like Ford have espoused, even partial privatization will undermine the entire single-payer system. With more private clinics, many people will stop using public services, and highly qualified doctors and nurses will leave to the higher-paying, private facilities. This will lead to a vicious cycle where there is further underfunding and staff shortages in the public system, decreasing access to and quality of health care for people who can’t pay.

Instead of calling for privatization, we need to invest in the current system to make sure that health care is truly a human right. McGill, especially, must use its institutional power to make medical school entrance requirements more equitable. McGill also has a responsibility to ensure that workers’ rights are protected at the MUHC. In parallel, Quebec government funds must be properly distributed tofix the health-care crisis—not through privatization—but by improving resources for hospitals and ensuring that health-care professionals, especially nurses, are properly compensated and treated with dignity. Quebec’s hospitals need solutions that can equitably care for the needs of all people—not just those who can afford it. 

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