VANCOUVER, CANADA — When the pain in Christina Woodkey's legs became so severe that she could no long hike or cross-country ski, she went to her local health clinic. The Calgary, Canada, resident was told she'd need to see a hip specialist. Because the problem was not life-threatening, however, she'd have to wait about a year.
So wait she did.
In January, the hip doctor told her that a narrowing of the spine was compressing her nerves and causing the pain. She needed a back specialist. The appointment was set for Sept. 30. "When I was given that date, I asked when could I expect to have surgery," said Woodkey, 72. "They said it would be a year and a half after I had seen this doctor."
So this month, she drove across the border into Montana and got the $50,000 surgery done in two days.
"I don't have insurance. We're not allowed to have private health insurance in Canada," Woodkey said. "It's not going to be easy to come up with the money. But I'm happy to say the pain is almost all gone."
Whereas U.S. healthcare is predominantly a private system paid for by private insurers, things in Canada tend toward the other end of the spectrum: A universal, government-funded health system is only beginning to flirt with private-sector medicine.
Hoping to capitalize on patients who might otherwise go to the U.S. for speedier care, a network of technically illegal private clinics and surgical centers has sprung up in British Columbia, echoing a trend in Quebec. In October, the courts will be asked to decide whether the budding system should be sanctioned.
More than 70 private health providers in British Columbia now schedule simple surgeries and tests such as MRIs with waits as short as a week or two, compared with the months it takes for a public surgical suite to become available for nonessential operations.
"What we have in Canada is access to a government, state-mandated wait list," said Brian Day, a former Canadian Medical Assn. director who runs a private surgical center in Vancouver. "You cannot force a citizen in a free and democratic society to simply wait for healthcare, and outlaw their ability to extricate themselves from a wait list."
Yet the move into privatized care threatens to make the delays -- already long from the perennial shortage of doctors and rationing of facilities -- even longer, public healthcare advocates say. There will be fewer skilled healthcare workers in government hospitals as doctors and nurses are lured into better-paying private jobs, they say.
"What it means is that people who have no money, who are chronically ill, disabled, who require medical attention frequently, are going to suffer dramatically," said Leslie Dickout of the B.C. Health Coalition, which is involved in the lawsuit to determine whether the Canadian Constitution guarantees citizens the right to choose their own care.
"There's so much money to be made by the insurance industry," she said. "If this [legal] case succeeds, what we would have is a system of U.S.-style healthcare -- along with a public system that is decimated."
Indeed, an investment group backed by Arizona businessman Melvin J. Howard this year filed a $160-million challenge under the North American Free Trade Agreement, demanding that U.S. healthcare companies gain access into Canada. The consortium hopes to build Canada's largest private health center in Vancouver, offering orthopedics, plastic surgery, general surgery and other services.
In many ways, the prospect of private investment is alluring in British Columbia, where the provincial government, like those all across Canada, funds the healthcare system. Provincial officials recently announced a $360-million shortfall in the $15.7-billion healthcare budget for the fiscal year that ends in March.
The shortage will mean fewer surgeries and longer waits.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority has said it would reduce the number of nonemergency MRIs by 20%; nonemergency patients now are being booked for scans in March.
Vancouver Coastal Health, which serves a quarter of the province's population, said it would eliminate 450 elective surgeries, about 30% of the schedule, during the four weeks of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
And in the rapidly growing suburbs east of Vancouver, the Fraser Health Authority plans to close its spending gap by, among other things, holding the number of MRIs to last year's total, ending $550,000 in service programs for senior citizens and reducing elective surgeries by about 14%.
The authorities also are making administrative cost cuts and looking to pool resources for things like computers and laboratories.
"We need to be crystal-clear. . . . I'm not denying anybody access here to urgent or acute or immediate care," Nigel Murray, the Fraser authority's chief executive, said in an interview. "If our surgeons feel people need access to urgent care, they get it."