Saskatchewan was born in the early years of the twentieth century. Its medical history is also very much a twentieth century story, one with controversial, emotional and even philosophical undertones.
As a system of universal health services, Medicare was the product of a lengthy period of medical and technological advancement. Its delivery, however, was a paradox: it was based on a spirit of cooperation and innovation that arose from an uniquely grassroots community, while polarizing and threatening a key professional segment of that same community. The march to Medicare was a milestone on “a road of medical firsts” that is truly remarkable in the light of just how young and pioneering Saskatchewan was.
Though there were many Medicare firsts in Saskatchewan, its development was part of wider social and historical trends in Canada and around the world. Czarist Russia attempted to implement a complete system of state medicine in rural areas in 1864. A comprehensive system of social insurance including health insurance was introduced in Germany in 1883. Though limited in scope, the British health service benefits plan for general practitioner care of workers was initiated in 1911. The Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Austria, Chile, the Netherlands and Japan had forms of state supported health insurance before World War II.
In Canada the federal, provincial and municipal governments gradually assumed greater healthcare responsibilities. In the years following World War I, led by Saskatchewan, groups such as veterans and victims of certain illnesses such as cancer and tuberculosis were provided with state-sponsored programs. In 1948 the federal government implemented the National Health Program of Grants as a precursor to “a National Health Insurance Plan.” In 1949 British Columbia followed Saskatchewan in introducing a hospitalization plan. By 1961, all provinces had some sort of government-supported healthcare plan.
What made Saskatchewan’s medical care plan so radical? It was the scope of its coverage. Saskatchewan’s Medical Care Insurance Act was to be a prepaid medical-care program, presented in a North American context that would be both comprehensive and universal.
Deep in the heart of Canada, medical history was being made in the form of a plan that would eventually set a precedent for medical care throughout the western world. North America’s first public medical insurance plan that became law on 1 July 1962 caught the larger world by surprise. But law was not enough. This volatile issue, the Medicare Crisis, would need strong resolution.
Medicare was a people’s issue. But was it also a violation of rights and freedoms? Would there even have been a Medicare Crisis without the press? From its roots to the crisis to its resolution, this intriguing chapter from our past is deserving of our historical attention.
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