Health care reform is personal

imageGordon Bean spent the last few years of his life in a Canadian hospital.  Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, my dad gradually lost control of his muscles.  His mother died exactly the same way, hunched over in a wheelchair.  Whether I will suffer the same fate remains to be seen, but it’s something I think about.

For me . . . for all of us, the health care debate is personal.  The picture at the left shows Gordon Bean as a young man; it was taken before I was born.  I like to remember dad as the guy in the picture;  it’s the way he would like to be remembered. 

We often speak of the naive and innocent as “boy scouts”.  My dad was an innocent in that sense, but he was also a genuine boy scout.  The adolescent Gordon Bean worked his way to the rank of King’s Scout (the Canadianimage-1 equivalent of an Eagle Scout).  He loved to fish, camp, canoe–all that good scout stuff and kept his scouting medals in a little cardboard box.  Loyalty, consistency, dedication; all the virtues we generally ascribe to the World War II generation apply to my father in triplicate.

Dad was a mix of diverse ideological elements.  His religion was conservative and literal, verging on fundamentalism.  His politics were liberal; some might say socialist.  He picked up the religious conservatism and the political radicalism at the same place: Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.  My father’s pastor, Sunday school teacher and lifelong mentor was T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, best known these days as the father of Canadian Medicare.

Douglas came to Weyburn in the heart of the Great Depression after completing a masters degree in sociology at the University of Chicago.  Douglas had always been drawn to union organizing, compassionate politics and the Social Gospel.  My father was going through his boy scout phase at the time and his pastor’s call to practical religion dovetailed nicely with the pledge he recited every week: “I swear to do my best, to do my duty to God and the King, to keep the law of the wolfcub pack and to do a good turn to somebody every day.” 

My father was never happy with his mentor’s liberal theology, but he embraced the practical side of  Douglas religion with enthusiasm.

Douglas quickly earned the suspicion of his betters in the Baptist Union of Western Canada.  Denominational officials realized that the young preacher had the capacity to accomplish great things, but not necessarily the great things Baptists get exercised about.  When the banks foreclosed and a farm was sold under the auctioneer’s hammer, Douglas persuaded the other farmers to bid no more than one dollar for the entire place.  Then the farm would be sold back to its original owner for the same price.  

Traditional Baptists wondered what this kind of leadership had to do with the gospel; Douglas insisted it was the gospel.

Tired of denominational infighting, Tommy Douglas joined the democratic socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and threw himself into the hurly-burly of provincial and federal politics.  He served as Saskatchewan premier from 1944 to 1961.  Just before leaving provincial politics to lead the Canadian New Democratic Party, Douglas introduced a single payer health care system to Saskatchewan that eventually became the model for the national system.

The Douglas Medicare system didn’t come without a fight.  Doctors across North America, fearful of “socialized medicine”, rallied around Saskatchewan physicians.  It was argued that Douglas would drive impoverished doctors out of the province and bring in foreign replacements– racist rhetoric featured prominently in the anti-medicare campaign.  In their desperation, the doctors went on strike, but Douglas prevailed.  Few doctors left the province and the average income of Saskatchewan physicians increased by an average of $3,000 in the first year of the program.

Before long the Saskatchewan healthcare model had spread to other provinces and eventually emerged as the Canadian medicare system my children were all born into.  My wife and I never spent a moment worrying about health insurance until we moved to Colorado in 1986.

Health care was uniquely personal for Tommy Douglas.  As a child, he developed osteomyelitis and would have had a leg amputated were it not for the pro bono ministrations of a kind physician.  The  diminutive Douglas gained a reputation as a scrappy boxer who never backed down, an attainment that would have been impossible if his parents had been forced to buy their health care on the open market.  Douglas saw health care as a right, not a privilege. 

In a national poll taken by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Tommy Douglas was voted the Greatest Canadian of the 20th Century.  My father was long dead by then, but he would have been proud of his old preacher.  Douglas died of cancer in 1986.

The Douglas legacy was exported to the United States when actress Shirley Douglas, the daughter of my dad’s famous Sunday school teacher, married actor Donald Sutherland.  Kiefer Sutherland of “24” fame is the grandson of the father of Canadian Medicare.  In 2000, when the conservative Alberta government experimented with the partial privatization of the provincial medical system, Shirley Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland participated in a protest rally.

I know it seems counter-intuitive to imagine Jack Bauer as the champion of universal health care, but Kiefer Sutherland had been using his notoriety, and his connection to the great Tommy Douglas, to influence the current debate.  “In the United States where I am now living,” he once told a Canadian audience, “I see the devastating effects of not having a national health care system.”

We won’t see real health care reform in the United States until a president puts his (or her) political survival on the line.  Tommy Douglas did that for Canada; can anyone do it in America?  Barack Obama is willing to make big sacrifices to make reform happen; but he isn’t ready to lay it all on the line.

I inherited four books on Tommy Douglas from my father’s personal library.  The books help me remember my father and the precious legacy he bequeathed to me.  “I can’t say I care for his theology,” dad once told me, “but T.C. Douglas was always on the side of the little guy.”

In my father’s moral lexicon, that was a good thing.

2 thoughts on “Health care reform is personal

  1. This is a very interesting article on a personal connection to the founder of Canadian health care.

    In my mind, its a good thing that Douglas was such a fighter and was able to turn his vision into reality. His vision of health care as a right serves to make the Canadian health care system a realistic model for offering everyone, regardless of income, the safety of knowing that when they are sick, they can focus on getting better and not just how to pay all the medical bills.

    While the system definitely needs some work to improve its effectiveness for current medical realities, the basic protections that it provides have withstood the test of time.

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