Waiting (still) for wait-time guarantees

Long wait times are the biggest impediment to health care, according to a new report by Statistics Canada.

In 2005, the median waiting time for specialized services came in at three to four weeks, remaining the same since 2003. People usually received medical care within three months.

The Stats Can study surveyed about 33,500 people, age 15 and over. Specialized services included receiving a diagnostic test, seeing a specialist or undergoing non-emergency surgery.

“There’s good news and bad news in those numbers,” said Sharon Sholzberg-Gray, president and CEO of the Canadian Healthcare Association. “In some ways it’s reassuring to hear that 80 per cent of people are getting access to services within three months but the bad news is that anywhere up to 20 per cent are not.”

The report indicated that finding a doctor was not necessarily the largest barrier to health care so much as waiting to see one. While the majority of respondents receiving a specialized service did not report having difficulties, 68 per cent of those who did said waiting was the problem. Thirty two per cent said they had trouble making an appointment.

Waiting for a speialist had more of an impact on people’s lives than waiting for non-emergency surgery, the findings indicated. Approximately 18 per cent of individuals who visited a specialist reported that waiting for the visit affected their life compared to 11 and 12 per cent for non-emergency surgery and diagnostic tests respectively. People said they experienced worry, stress, anxiety and even physical pain while they waited.

This comes at a time when some media are reporting that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vow to reduce wait times has “vanished” from his government’s priorities list.

According to a report in the Canadian Press, Harper recently penned a column in conservative journal Report Magazine which summarized his minority government’s achievements since bringing down its first budget in May.

“It’s been quite a ride ever since, with progress being made on all of our five priorities – from cleaning up the federal government, to cutting taxes, cracking down on crime, supporting families and strengthening our country at home and around the world,” writes Prime Minister Harper.

Media reports have been quick to point out that “strengthening the country” has seemingly replaced the previously touted fifth priority of “working with the provinces to establish a Patient Wait Times guarantee” mentioned during last winter’s election campaign and in the April throne speech outlining the Conservative government’s agenda.

A spokesman for Harper denied the wait-times guarantee has been dropped from the government’s agenda. “Certainly the wait-times guarantee remains in our priorities,” Stephane Rondeau told the Canadian Press.

The wait-times guarantee was meant to ensure that patients received medical treatment by specified deadlines. Under the measure, provinces would foot the bill to send patients out of province, if timely care was not available.

Harper never offered to give provinces additional federal money, suggesting they had sufficient funding through a $42-billion, ten-year deal struck with Paul Martin in 2004.

But a provincial official has said chances are ‘nil’ that wait-time guarantees will ever become a reality without federal funding.

“You cannot pretend there are not extraordinary additional costs associated with it (guaranteed wait-times),” Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman said in an interview.

Liberal leadership hopeful Bob Rae has accused Harper of dropping the promise deliberately “because their real agenda is to drive the provinces to establishing two tiers.”

And in a cross country check up with provinces and territories, Canada’s Association for the Fifty-Plus (CARP) found that wait times are being addressed by governments each in their own way.

“Although progress can be measured with their current strategies, they agree that there is still a long way to go to meet their goals,” says Judy Cutler, co-director of media and government relations for CARP.