As It Happens

Why this Canadian doctor is helping Bernie Sanders fight for public health care in the U.S.

Dr. Danielle Martin, who vigorously defended Canadian health care before a 2014 U.S. Senate committee, has become the face of Bernie Sanders's new 'Medicare For All' bill.
Dr. Daniel Martin flashes her Ontario health card during a rally in Washington for Sen. Bernie Sanders' 'Medicare for All' bill on Wednesday. (YouTube)
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Story transcript

A Canadian doctor is making waves south of the border as a prominent advocate of Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders' latest bid to bring universal health care to the United States.

Dr. Danielle Martin stood alongside the Vermont senator at a Washington rally on Wednesday to launch his bill to create a government-funded, single-payer health-care system akin to Canada's.

Surrounded by top Democrats in front of dozens of television cameras and spectators, she passionately defended the Canadian system, explaining that she didn't have to pay a penny to deliver her child.

"I just handed over this card, my Canadian health-care card, to my doctor. And that was it," she said, waving her green Ontario health card to applause. "I wish that all of my American neighbours could experience the same simplicity in their moments of need."

Martin, who made headlines in 2014 for vigorously defending the Canadian system in front of a U.S. Senate committee, spoke with As It Happens guest host Jim Brown on Thursday. Here is part of their conversation.

What are you trying to tell Americans about the Canadian health-care system?

Mostly I'm just trying to set the record straight. I mean, I think part of what Canadians need to prepare for as America begins to undertake a more serious conversation about universal health-care coverage and single-payer health care, Canada's going to be become a target in that conversation.

So when you say Canada will become a target, you mean as a kind of a cautionary tale?

I've even today been shown clips of various Republican strategists and senators and congresspeople saying things like: "You know, in Canada health care is catastrophic and all Canadians hate health care and that's why they come to the U.S. to get their health-care services whenever they can." That's the kind of thing that we're hearing.

To the extent that Canada is going to be used, either as a cautionary tale or as a Utopian dream, It think it's important to have some Canadian voices in that conversation.

Now this idea that Sen. Sanders is proposing, the idea of a single-payer health-care system in the U.S., it just seems that in this current political climate, that's such a pipe dream. I mean, even Obama couldn't come close to that when he was president. What makes you think that Bernie Sanders' plan has a chance of succeeding?

I don't know what's realistic and what's not realistic, but in the wake of what seems to be an endless cycle of repeal and replace conversations about Obamacare, where tens of millions of people have had their health insurance threatened and thought that they were about to be without health-care accesss at all in this country, maybe it's opened up a window of opporunity for a different kind of coversation.

But you're talking about a conversation based on facts and ideas and examples. Is there room for a conversation like that in the American political climate of 2017?

All I know is that if those of us who have the facts and ideas and evidence don't bring it to that conversation, then it definitely isn't going to happen.

I'm not planning on staying in Washington, D.C. I'm coming home to Toronto tonight, going back to my regular job. But I did feel it was important to have a Canadian in that room yesterday because so much of what is said about Canadian health care is empirically untrue in these debates.

But it's not a perfect system we have here. A study came out just earlier this year by the Canadian Institute for Health Information and it showed that compared to other industrialized countries we have the highest proportion of patients reporting excessively long waits in an emergency department. And we've all heard horror stories about surgical wait times. 

The last thing I think we want to do as Canadians is to pretend that our system is perfect or we've got it all figured out. We don't. I mean, I wrote an entire book about how we need to improve the Canadian health-care system, so I'm not an apologist for its faults. But the question is, how are you going to address them?

We sometimes have these conversations in Canada, and we forget that the conversation that they're having in the U.S. is very different. They're having a conversation about 28 million people who have no insurance at all. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to Jim Brown's conversation with Dr. Danielle Martin.

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