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(Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
(Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Lysiane Gagnon

Give Danny Williams a break Add to ...

With all the abuse politicians face, it's amazing that some people still want to run for office. Who would want to lose their privacy for a salary that's mediocre compared with those in the private sector and for the privilege of spending their weekends visiting homes for seniors instead of spending time with their families?

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Their careers can be ruined by an unfortunate slip of the tongue or an innocuous, yet politically incorrect, remark. They are constantly under scrutiny by the media, even when they're going through a personal ordeal, and now it seems they're even expected to relinquish control over their own health. An example is the anger directed at Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams for his decision to undergo heart surgery in the United States.

Mr. Williams, already plagued by cardiac problems, had to deal with the abuse hurled at him by the holier-than-thou commentators who wanted him to have the surgery in Canada for the sake of the country's reputation. This was disgraceful and unfair. Although it's praiseworthy to offer one's body to science (i.e., the public good), this usually occurs after death. No one, not even a premier or a prime minister, should have to sacrifice his health to politics.

It may be that Canada has all the medical resources required by Mr. Williams's condition, as some physicians have claimed. Indeed, I know several rich people who could have had surgery in prestigious American hospitals but decided to have their operations in Montreal. But such decisions are nobody's business, as long as the cost of going south is not a burden on the public purse. Mr. Williams shouldn't even feel obliged to justify his decision when he returns to work.

In any case, if Mr. Williams chose to spend his own money to have surgery in the United States, he performed a service for another Canadian citizen, since he left a slot open on a waiting list. Despite the claims of hospital bureaucrats, there are waiting lists everywhere, even though some might be shorter than others.

And who can believe that a premier wouldn't have jumped the queue? He wouldn't even have had to ask for a privilege - it would have been given to him. Doctors do this all the time for patients they know or who've been recommended by a colleague. Who can believe that a premier wouldn't have quicker access in a country where hospitals depend on provincial governments for their budgets?

In a context where medical care is "free" but rationed, those who jump the queue are celebrities or people who have "contacts" in the health-care field. A premier is both a celebrity and a person with contacts.

In 1993, then-Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, who had been diagnosed with melanoma, was treated at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. No one at the time (or since) chastised Mr. Bourassa for seeking medical treatment in the United States.

Of course, Mr. Williams's decision was instantly exploited by the American right, which is ferociously fighting against President Barack Obama's health-care reform. This is a shame, but it's irrelevant. Anything is fodder for America's right-wing crusaders and, if it hadn't been Mr. Williams's case, it would have been someone else's. There are enough people desperately waiting for medical treatment in Canada to provide a great deal of ammunition for the Republicans and their friends at Fox News.

Instead of being obsessed with their image south of the border, Canadians should try to find out how their health-case system could be improved. And they should be realistic enough to accept that people fighting for their lives will always be tempted, if they can afford it, to take advantage of the formidable know-how of the U.S. medical system - which, incidentally, is where most of our top-notch specialists did their postdoctoral studies.

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