How Does the Canadian Healthcare System Work?

Dec 19 2017, 5:43 pm

Like politics, the Canucks and the series finale of Breaking Bad, the Canadian healthcare system never fails to spark debate. Whether we like our system the way it is or whether we want it to change, each of us knows how we feel.  And, now that Obamacare has signalled a shift in the American perception of healthcare, it seems that all eyes are on those of us North of the border. But how exactly does our system work, anyway?   And, almost more importantly, do we Canadians think it works?

I pay my taxes, but I don’t really understand how healthcare works.

In 1984, the Canadian Health Act was passed, with the goal to provide healthcare to all Canadian residents, regardless of income or social status. Every Canadian resident is covered by a provincial health insurance plan specific to where they live, and each of these provincial plans have common features and standards of coverage. As a whole, the thirteen provincial and territorial health plans are known as the national health insurance program.

Okay, so who is covered by the national health insurance program? And what is covered?

In order to qualify for health insurance, the rules are simple: the patient has to be a resident of a Canadian province or territory. Basic health services, like visits to the family doctor and emergency care, are automatically covered by provincial insurance. Depending on the province, extra services, like optometry or chiropractor appointments, can also be covered. Canadian healthcare also allows for customization – some provinces allow patients to add “additional benefits” to their healthcare plans. But, as a general rule, patients have to pay for uninsured “elective services” like massage therapy appointments or cosmetic surgery.

How do you pay for Canadian healthcare?

The majority of healthcare in Canada is funded by public taxation, but it can vary from province to province. Here in B.C. for example, we pay an additional fixed premium for healthcare. In the case of patients with low incomes, that premium can be reduced or completely waived by the B.C. government. In fact, statistics show that 94 per cent of healthcare funding comes from the provincial level rather than the national level. At the same time, almost two thirds of Canadians pay for private, supplemental insurance policies that will insure them for services that aren’t covered by their provincial plans.

What do Canadians think about our healthcare system?

Statistics show that 85 per cent of Canadians think that public healthcare is key in defining “the nature of Canada.” Yet, despite being proud of our healthcare, survey results also suggest that many of us also think that the current system could use some changes. For instance, Canada is notorious for having high tax rates. In fact, the average Canadian family pays almost half of its income in taxes. Also, a province can spend as much as 40 cents out every tax dollar on healthcare. Experts even project that in the next twenty years, provinces could spend as much as 85 per cent of their budgets on healthcare.

Then, of course, there are the wait times. Several years ago, the Fraser Institute estimated that the average waiting time for surgical or specialist treatment was about eighteen weeks. Compare this number with twenty-five years ago, when the average time was nine weeks. Because these numbers are rising so quickly, some experts have wondered whether the federal government will be able to sustain this healthcare system in the future.

What do Americans think about our healthcare system?

Despite problems, many people on both sides of the border prefer our situation to the US, where about 45 million Americans lack health insurance. In fact, in 2009, America spent about 17 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, whereas Canada only spent 11 per cent. In other words, although American taxes are lower, the government does spend more money on healthcare than we do.

At the same time, though, many people are quick to point out some of the benefits of the American system, like shorter wait times. Last year, most Americans had to wait only about two weeks to see a specialist, but Canadians waited more than twice that amount of time. Short wait times and other perceived advantages are very attractive to both patients and physicians – some 200 physicians move to the US every year, and, according to Vancouver’s Fraser Institute, over 45,000 Canadians sought medical care outside Canada in 2011.

What do you think about the Canadian healthcare system?

Our health laws seem to get a lot of praise from other countries, and many Canadians seem to like the idea of our system, even if they think that there are some changes that could be made. What do you think? Is Canadian healthcare in good shape the way it is? Or does our system need to change?

Leave a comment below, and let us know your thoughts!


This article was written by Alex Roston at Connect the Doc. Connect the Doc is a website that allows prospective patients to find and book short notice appointments online, 24/7 with a Vancouver chiropractorregistered massage therapists, dentists, physiotherapists and other private healthcare clinics. To learn more, sign up for free or book an appointment, visit

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