Private for-profit clinics are a booming business in Canada -- a country often touted as a successful example of a universal health system.
Facing long waits and substandard care, private clinics are proving that Canadians are willing to pay for treatment.
“Any wait time was an enormous frustration for me and also pain. I just couldn't live my life the way I wanted to,” says Canadian patient Christine Crossman, who was told she could wait up to a year for an MRI after injuring her hip during an exercise class. Warned she would have to wait for the scan, and then wait even longer for surgery, Crossman opted for a private clinic.
As the Obama administration prepares to launch its legislative effort to create a national health care system, many experts on both sides of the debate site Canada as a successful model.
But the Canadian system is not without its problems. Critics lament the shortage of doctors as patients flood the system, resulting in long waits for some treatment.
“No question, it was worth the money,” said Crossman, who paid several hundred dollars and waited just a few days.
Health care delivery in Canada falls largely under provincial jurisdiction, complicating matters.
Private for-profit clinics are permitted in some provinces and not allowed in others. Under the Canada Health Act, privately run facilities cannot charge citizens for services covered by government insurance.
But a 2005 Supreme Court ruling in Quebec opened the door for patients facing unreasonable wait times to pay-out-of-pocket for private treatment.
“I think there is a fundamental shift in different parts of the country that's beginning to happen. I think people are beginning to realize that they should have a choice,” says Luc Boulay, a partner at St. Joseph MRI, a private clinic in Quebec that charges around $700 for most scans.
Yet advocates looking to preserve fairness claim that private clinics undermine the very foundation of the country's healthcare system.
“Private clinics don't produce one new doctor, nurse, or specialist. All they do it take the existing ones out of the public system, make wait times longer for everybody else while people who can pay more and more and more money jump the queue for health care services,” said Natalie Mehra, member of the Ontario Health Coalition.
Canada spends $3,600 per capita on health care -- almost half of what is spent in the U.S. And while some in Washington look to its northern neighbor for ideas, the Canadian system is still changing.
“One can understand that this is evolving and a mix of private and public seems to be favorable in some context. On the other hand, we need to be really careful that we're not treating health care the way we treat a value meal at McDonalds,” Dr. Michael Orsini from the University of Ottawa told FOX News.
Provincial governments now face the difficult job of finding a balance in meeting the country’s health care needs — reducing wait times and maintaining fair access without redefining the universal ideals at the core of Canada's health care system.
Molly Line joined Fox News Channel as a Boston-based correspondent in January 2006.