Canadian Premier's Heart Surgery Plans Raise Questions About Health Care

A prominent Canadian politician’s decision to undergo heart surgery in the U.S. has touched off a debate about national health care in his own country.

At the center of controversy is Danny Williams, premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Williams’ decision to head south across the border for his surgery is drawing fire from defenders of the Canadian health-care system – a favorite example for proponents of a government-run health care in the U.S.

Williams, a millionaire and former lawyer, left Canada on Monday to seek treatment at an unspecified hospital in the U.S. It is not clear what kind of surgery he’ll undergo, though Newfoundland Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale said that having the surgery in the province was not an option.

So what about a hospital in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver?

"Virtually all forms of cardiac surgery are looked after in Canada, and I would say extremely well," Dr. Chris Feindel, a cardiac surgeon at Toronto's University Health Network told the National Post. "Personally ... I would have my cardiac surgery done in Canada, no matter what resources I had at my disposal."

Feindel was quick to point out that U.S. patients have come to UHN's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre for valve repairs.

Canadian Sen. Wilbert Keon, a retired heart surgeon and professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, told the Toronto Sun that Newfoundland does not have the kind of "post-surgery technical support to allow all advanced complicated procedures to be performed there."

But, "I can’t imagine anything that couldn’t be done in Canada that is done in America," he told the newspaper.

"Virtually all" complex heart surgeries could be performed Ottawa’s Heart Institute, as well as medical centers in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton, Keon told the Sun.

Dr. Marc Siegel, an internist and Fox News contributor disagreed with Feindel and Keon.

"You would not find a U.S. governor going to Canada for surgery," Siegel said. "We’d be putting our quality of care at risk if we went to a single-payer system like Canada."

Siegel said if the U.S. does move to a universal health care system, people wanting the "crème de la crème" in medicine would probably have to go elsewhere.

"It is quite possible that the procedure he is getting is so specialized that the top doctors doing it are to be found only in the U.S.," Siegel said.

There also is the possibility that Williams has private health insurance, which may or may not have been accepted at Canadian hospitals.

"I would expect that he is eligible for all the rest of us would be in terms of our own private insurance or government insurance, and I’m sure there’s anything over and above that, the premier would certainly take care of it himself," Dunderdale told the Press.

Williams’ recovery is expected to take three to 12 weeks, Dunderdale said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.