09/14/04 — Quick surgery:Suppose Bill Clinton had lived in Canada

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Quick surgery:Suppose Bill Clinton had lived in Canada

President Bill Clinton’s quick, successful heart bypass surgery inspired an interesting question at the Cato Institute.

The institute, based in Washington, is one of those private agencies where scholars do research and write papers to help amplify issues. It has what might be called a conservative bent, since it advocates limited government and free markets.

Limited government is what came to mind when Clinton needed heart surgery and got it promptly. Michael Cannon, the institute’s director of health policy studies, recalled that a goal of Clinton’s presidency was to place the huge health-care industry into the hands of the federal government.

That, Cannon has written, would have made the health-care system in the United States similar to those of Canada and other countries with socialized medicine. Bill Clinton should be glad that didn’t happen.

Clinton went to a hospital near his home in Chappaqua, N.Y., on a Thursday evening and said he was having chest pains and shortness of breath. He was looked over and told to return the next morning.

On the second day, Friday, cardiologists performed an angiogram to get a better look at his heart. A doctor noted an artery problem, and the former president was sent to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Doctors there took a look and advised Clinton to have bypass surgery quickly. Clinton was admitted to the hospital, and he had the surgery on Monday.

It wouldn’t have happened that way in Canada.

Canadians, according to Cannon’s research, have to wait 3.4 weeks on average for an appointment with a cardiologist, whereas Clinton had to wait one night. For quadruple bypass surgery, Clinton waited three days — from Saturday until Monday. Canadians have to wait two weeks.

In total, the wait for diagnosis and surgery in Canada may exceed five weeks. In Clinton’s case it was all done in four days.

Doctors generally agree that the sooner such surgery is done when it’s needed, the better a patient’s chance of surviving in good health.

One problem with socialized medicine, Cannon writes, is that that when a government offers it “free,” higher demand is created. The governments find themselves forcing patients to wait, but Cannon reports that some Canadians have a safety valve. They can come to the United States and get their surgeries without a risky delay. That safety valve may disappear if our country turns health care over to the government.

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, says he hopes to do that. If he does, ex-presidents and senators probably won’t have to wait for their urgent operations, but most of us will.

Published in Editorials on September 14, 2004 11:05 AM