Williams' U.S. surgery raises questions

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, Friday, January 29, 2010.  REUTERS/Greg Locke,...

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, Friday, January 29, 2010. REUTERS/Greg Locke, file

CHRISTINA SPENCER and SHEENA GOODYEAR, Parliamentary Bureau

, Last Updated: 8:23 PM ET

OTTAWA — Danny Williams’ decision to seek cardiac care in the United States should jolt Canadian politicians into an overdue debate about the state of public health care here, some experts say.

And it would help, they add, if the 60-year-old premier of Newfoundland and Labrador shared more detail about what procedure he’s undergoing and why he can’t get it in Canada.

All that was known Wednesday was that Williams was to have heart surgery in the U.S., possibly as early as Thursday. Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale said Williams’ doctors never offered the option of treatment in Newfoundland.

His decision to go south has led to speculation he is paying privately — an awkward situation for a political leader in a country that proudly trumpets state-funded health care.

Many politicians — including those from opposition parties — have shied away from discussing Williams.

The silence is problematic, said University of Ottawa health economist Doug Angus. How we fund health care “has not been on the radar. Politicians are deathly afraid of discussing this and it really is something that should be out in the open,” he said.

Arthur Sweetman, a professor of public policy at Queen’s University, urged Williams to be a bit less coy, saying those who act as guardians of the public system can’t keep their own health entirely private.

“We’re just left with a whole lot of questions,” agreed Natalie Mehra, director of the Ontario Health Coalition, which advocates for a stronger public health system.

Patients in small provinces are sometimes sent to other health centres for specialized treatment, and, even to the U.S. The question Williams must answer, Sweetman said, is whether his case followed “normal practice.

“We don’t need to know all the details of his problem — we need to know whether he went by the book.”

That book should be thrown out, according to Dr. Brian Day, a British Columbia orthopedic surgeon and former head of the CMA.

Even if Williams paid privately, “I and anyone else in the same position would likely do the same thing” if we needed the care, Day said.

“We know patients die on waiting lists. There is every justification for what he’s doing.”

But waiting lists for cardiac care in Canada aren’t a problem, said Kori Kingsbury, CEO of the Cardiac Care Network in Ontario. “The priority system does work. We can safely triage people.”

Furthermore, says Dr. Asim Cheema, a professor of cardiology from the University of Toronto and a doctor at St. Michael’s Hospital, “There is no procedure in cardiology and cardiac surgery that is done in the United States but not in Canada.

“In fact, Canada is ahead for certain procedures.”

christina.spencer@sunmedia.ca


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