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The Americans can say what they like about their own health-care system. But if they are going to come after ours, they will have to get past Conservative Senator Hugh Segal.

In a blistering statement this week before the Canadian Senate, Mr. Segal took on the U.S. Republican Senate Leader who is leading the charge against government-funded health care in his country.

Senator Mitch McConnell from Kentucky made the mistake of suggesting that the residents of Mr. Segal's hometown of Kingston, Ont., are provided with health care that is inferior to what is available in the United States.

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"By focusing on just one hospital in one city in Canada - Kingston General, in the city of Kingston, Ont. - we can get a glimpse of the effect that government-run health care has on everyday Canadians, and the long waits they routinely endure for necessary care," Mr. McConnell said in a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on June 8.

"While it's not uncommon for Americans to receive medical treatment within days of a serious diagnosis, at Kingston General Hospital, wait times can be staggering," he said.

He went on to list times for key procedures including hip and knee replacements at the Kingston hospital, as well as the Ontario targets for cancers of the brain, breast and prostate.

"For cardiac bypass surgery," the senator said, "patients in Ontario are told they may have to wait six months for a surgery that Americans can often get right away."

Mr. McConnell's statistics, including those for cardiac surgery, do match those on the website of the Ontario Ministry of Health.

But, in a letter to the U.S. senator late last week, David Zelt, the hospital's chief of staff, said: "I respectfully submit that the information you supplied to the U.S. Senate is not an accurate or fair glimpse of either our institution or our national health-care system." Dr. Zelt ripped through Mr. McConnell's assertions about Kingston's waiting times for hip and knee replacements. The Ontario Health Ministry numbers reflect the time it takes to get treatment to nine out of 10 patients. But the average waiting times at the Kingston hospital are much lower, Dr. Zelt said.

And in terms of the Ontario-wide statistics, Dr. Zelt said, the senator had quoted targets when the actual waits across the province were significantly shorter.

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Mr. Segal took the rebuttal one step further. "According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average lifespan in Kentucky is 75.2 years and according to Statistics Canada, that number is 80.4 years in Ontario, 78.3 years in Kingston," he told the Canadian Senate after discounting Mr. McConnell's numbers.

"Furthermore, according to a Fraser Institute study, in 2006, the U.S. spent $6,714 per capita versus $3,678 in Canada."

Mr. Segal said in a telephone interview yesterday that the statistics indicate that Canadians are actually doing a better job at health care than their southern neighbours.

"I actually don't have an official view as a senator about what the Americans should be doing about their system," he said. "But I don't think misrepresenting and distorting our numbers is a constructive contribution to the debate, simply because it is both inaccurate and it understates the strengths of some of the options they are looking at. And when they decided to use KGH as their example, I felt this was an important obligation on my part to set the record straight."

Reality check

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and Kingston General Hospital (KGH) give very different estimates of the waiting time for certain treatments:

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Sen. McConnell KGH
Hip replacement 196 days 91 days
Knee replacement 340 days 109 days
Cardiac bypass surgery 6 months 16 days
Neurological cancer surgery 3 months 8 days
Breast cancer surgery 3 months 16 days
Prostate cancer surgery 3 months 49 days
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