Most Canadians of all political stripes have immense pride in Canada’s universal public healthcare system, with many considering it an integral part of the Canadian identity. It is no surprise then that many Canadians list the continued funding of the public healthcare system as one of their main concerns when casting their votes, ranking healthcare higher than other issues such as accountability, taxes, and inequality. Canadian politicians of all political leanings and in every level of government have responded to these concerns by almost always committing to keep the universal healthcare system truly universal and single-tiered, with some even promising to expand it to areas such as dental care, vision care, and pharma care. During the current election campaign for example, the NDP has promised to spend $2.6 billion over four years to work with the provinces to establish universal prescription drug coverage across Canada, and $1.8 billion to bolster provincial healthcare for seniors. However, there is a major issue not being discussed with regards to the Canadian healthcare system: the actual health of Canadians. The public discussion around healthcare is so focused on treating the sick that we are forgetting or ignoring ways to prevent Canadians from getting sick and having to use our healthcare system in the first place.
If the various governments in Canada focused on improving the health of Canadians rather than simply increasing funding to things like hospitals, the healthcare system as a whole may have not become as expensive as it is now. In Canada, healthcare is under the constitutional jurisdiction of the various Canadian provincial governments, and with financial help from the federal government, they run the universal healthcare system. Currently, provincial government spending on healthcare far outweighs other areas of government. Across Canada, the provinces, with the federal government’s help, spent approximately $250 billion on their various healthcare systems in 2014 alone, equaling around 11 per cent of total Canadian GDP and approximately $6,045 per capita, one of the highest in the world. Healthcare spending now accounts for, on average, around 40 per cent of total provincial spending across Canada. If we were able to save even a fraction of that large amount of tax-payer money that we currently spend on healthcare, provincial governments across Canada would save a massive amount of money that could then be used elsewhere to fund various social programs, pay down debt, or lower taxes.
There are other benefits to improving the health of Canadians in addition to reducing the public costs of the healthcare system. If the Canadian population was healthier, there is also a real possibly of the economy performing better due to the fact that healthier workers are more productive workers. This is due to the fact that workers who are healthier take fewer sick days, have healthier habits that improve their performance, and are less likely to stay home to care for loved ones. A more productive workforce in an increasingly more competitive global economy will be a major advantage for Canadians and Canadian businesses. Furthermore, the Canadian workers that tend to have the worst health tend to be the working poor; therefore government programs or initiatives aimed at making the Canadian population healthier would have the knock on effect of disproportionately helping the Canadians who need it the most. Accordingly, the working poor of Canada would in turn increase their productivity and therefore increase the chance of improving their financial situations.
But the problem remains as to how and what policy governments across Canada can put in place that will result in Canadians making healthier choices. This is a question that has many possible answers. One of the most common government policies aimed at improving health is a so called “fat tax”, a tax on unhealthy ingredients. Variants of this policy exist in countries like Norway and Mexico, with the point of the policy aimed at increasing the prices of unhealthy foods and drinks relative to healthy ones, making healthier choices more appealing to consumers. This policy, combined with increased subsidies to healthier options like fruits and vegetables, has the possibility to greatly improve the health of Canadians. As an example, a British Medical Journal report found that taxing unhealthy foods and drinks could have a significant impact on diet-related related conditions like obesity and heart disease. Another public policy option adopted in places such as Norway, Sweden, and the province of Quebec is the banning of junk food advertising to children. This policy is aimed at preventing children from developing unhealthy eating habits at an early age that could carry over to adult life. One Canadian study found that Quebec’s ban on fast food advertising to children has resulted in fast food spending in Quebec declining by 13 per cent, or a decrease of an estimated 11 to 22 million fast food meals per year. These two policy proposals are just a few of the options on the table for Canadian governments to consider when considering policy aimed at making Canadians healthier.
However, as long as the Canadian public is preoccupied with increasing the funding of the healthcare system as opposed to public policy aimed at making Canadians healthier, policymakers simply won’t take any realistic proposals into consideration. This is due to the fact that policymakers have no incentive to go through with these proposals, because they could be politically risky. Thus, a Canada concerned with healthcare rather than health will continue to miss out on an opportunity to free up substantial financial resources and possibly increase economic growth.