Canada’s health care system has serious problems, so why isn’t this election about them?

October 9, 2015 – By Angus Reid and Ian Holliday

In every survey we’ve conducted during this election campaign, we’ve asked Canadians to name their two most important issues. And in every survey, we see between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population naming health care. The only issue consistently chosen by a larger portion of the electorate is the economy.

By our measures, that makes health care the second-most important issue in this campaign, but if you watched any of the leaders’ debates, you wouldn’t know it.

Countless minutes in each were devoted to the economy, security, refugees, and whether a woman should have the right to wear a niqab while taking the oath of citizenship. And yet, precious little time was given to what the parties might do to improve the nation’s health care system – a system that nearly three times as many Canadians think has deteriorated over the last 10 to 15 years as think it has improved.

The parties and their leaders have each made statements and promises about health care, but none of these has captured the election news cycle in the way that other issues have.

This is a shame, because the next government will be responsible for addressing two major problems facing the system: access to primary care and affordable prescription drugs, both of which are key to improving health care outcomes. And – as two recent ARI studies have helped to show – limitations to this access are more common than previous research has indicated.

Our recent report on the politics of health care found – as previous studies have – that roughly one-in-seven Canadians (15%) don’t have a regular family doctor.

But the lack of access to a general practitioner is only the tip of the iceberg on this issue. Our research finds that an additional one-quarter of the population (25%) finds getting in to see their GP unreasonably difficult. Indeed, fully half of the country (50%) has gone to either a walk-in clinic or a hospital emergency room for something they could have otherwise seen a family doctor for in the last year. Those with difficult or non-existent access to a GP account for the majority of those visits.

Even excluding the 5 per cent of Canadians who say they don’t want a GP, we find more than a third (35%) of the country experiencing difficult or non-existent access to primary care through a physician. In Quebec, this total is more than half the population (52%).

These figures are troubling. Those we’ve spoken to in the health care industry since we released our findings have been surprised by the extent of the problem.

In a similar vein, a study we conducted with the Mindset Foundation in July on access to prescription drugs and support for a national pharmacare plan found that nearly one-quarter of Canadians (23%) say themselves or someone in their household has failed to take a prescription as directed in the last year because of cost. This, too, is higher than previous studies had indicated.

Each of these findings suggests that the statistics we’ve been using to talk about health care in this country are incomplete, and that the problems facing the system are more dire than we had previously thought.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that health care ranks highly on Canadians’ lists of top issues for the campaign, or that nearly 30 per cent of those with difficult access to a GP say health care will be “the deciding factor” for them in this election.

So far, the campaign has not done this level of interest in the issue justice. Let us hope that the next government – regardless of which party forms it – will.

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