50 years of Medicare

Tension, opposition and hostility characterized Saskatchewan’s fight for Medicare

July 23, 2012 — The Leader-Post & The StarPhoenix

It started just as any other political platform does — as an announcement during a party nomination meeting. But the backlash that followed Premier Tommy Douglas’s proposal for Medicare has made Canadian history.

History

Immediately after it was announced in April of 1959, the CCF government’s proposed plan to implement a tax-payer-funded, universal health care program was met with opposition from Saskatchewan doctors and nurses. Calling it a “scheme,” the Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons officially opposed the government-controlled program in 1960, and Saskatchewan’s struggle for Medicare was ignited.

Political negotiations, citizen protests, and province-wide discord ensued as tension built between medical professionals and the government.

The Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act was passed by the CCF government in November of 1961, but doctors were far from done fighting.

After months of struggle and rejected offers, a province-wide doctors’ strike resulted, and hundreds of doctors walked off the job on July 1, 1962. Left with only a handful of practicing physicians, local groups of doctors and citizens established member-owned community clinics to ensure patients could still get access to medical care.

The emergence of community clinics

By 1962, clinics were popping up around the province and the government was recruiting doctors from Britain to replace the doctors engaged in the labor action.

One of those physicians, Dr. John Bury, came from England to Saskatoon in 1963.

“I was practicing as a GP in England before I came and joined the Saskatoon Community Clinic. The reason I came was that the idea of a clinic owned by the patients whose objective was to establish a partnership between health providers, and health users, working in partnership in a salaried, pre-national health service in which there would be other health professionals working as a team — that attracted me,” said Bury, who remembers the conflict of the 1960s vividly.

“There were about 34 of the clinics in the end, and that’s where the hostility developed.”

Members of the community clinics, who sided with the government, faced strong opposition from the rest of the medical profession. They were denied permission to work in hospitals in Regina and Saskatoon and experienced extreme hostility.

“One reason for that was because we sided with the government,” said Bury. “But more importantly, I believe the community clinics were more of a threat to the doctors than Medicare itself was. With Medicare, [doctors] would still get their bills paid … but the community clinics meant that lay people were taking control of what had always been controlled by the medical profession — we were challenging the autonomy of the profession.”

Strike ends — agreement reached

After countless months of protesting, and 23 days off the job, the Saskatchewan doctors strike was settled.

On July 23, 1962 — 50 years ago today — Lord Stephen Taylor, British doctor and MP, mediated an agreement between the parties.   The Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act would remain in place. Despite pleas from doctors, medical professionals across the province would work under Tommy Douglas’s vision of a free, accessible-for-all medical care program. The July 23 agreement introduced amendments to the existing act, which accommodated doctors and allowed them to opt out of Medicare if they wished.

A memorable milestone

As the 1960s rolled on, tension in hospitals and clinics slowly receded, and Medicare evolved into an effective system that allowed people around the province to have equal access to medical care.

Fifty years later, Bury says people should not forget the struggle and the opposition that went into what our medical system is today.

“The whole era was tremendously traumatic for the people of Saskatchewan because it split groups right down the middle. We had threats against our lives. Some people still don’t talk today because of the trauma that happened.”

Bury, who remained involved in pro-government health care initiatives for many years following, says the conflict was ultimately caused by political differences.

“The doctors thought that what we were doing was communism. So there was that attitude of paranoia about socialism … they were fearful that the government was trying to introduce a salaried medical service. What the government was trying to do was find a way that patients didn’t have to have barriers of getting medical care because they couldn’t afford to pay the bills.”

“One of the most important things to remember was the paranoia that doctors and nurses had about the government’s intentions. They saw a socialist, communist manifesto and that coloured their behavior. The profession had their own private medical plans, which included GMS and MSI, and they thought that would be undermined with Medicare.”

While many have their own memories of the conflict of the 1960s, the struggle for Medicare in Saskatchewan is easily the most significant development in the history of the province.

When Tommy Douglas first publically proposed his plan for Medicare on a radio broadcast in 1959, he said: “If we can do this — then I would like to hazard a prophecy that, before 1970, almost every other province in Canada will have followed the lead of Saskatchewan, and we shall have a national health insurance program from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

Paving the way for the rest of the country, the Saskatchewan Medicare model was adopted in every other Canadian province by 1972.

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