Do you know how much you pay for health care?

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, August 6, 2016

An interesting quirk of Canada’s public health-care system is that no one really knows how much they pay for it.

The constant reminders about health care consuming 40 per cent of provincial budgets (on average) certainly disabuse any notion that health care is “free.” However, odds are that if you asked someone how much they paid for public health-care insurance or services last year, a specific answer would be hard to come by.

Why? Because although we’re aware our taxes collectively pay for Canada’s public health-care system, there’s no dedicated health insurance tax. Governments simply fund health-care services from a pool of general tax revenues, making it very difficult for Canadians to calculate how much of their total tax payments go towards health care every year.

While some provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario have specific health insurance premiums, this only adds to the confusion because such payments still go to general government revenues and even then, only fund a fraction of health-care costs.

So, how much do we actually pay for our public health-care system?

Using the most recent tax and health-care expenditure data, we estimate that the average unattached individual will pay about $4,257 this year, while an average family of four will pay $11,494.

Of course, the payments vary according to income. The 10 per cent of Canadian families with the lowest incomes (who earn an average income of $14,028) will pay an average of $443 for public health insurance while families among the top 10 per cent of income earners (who earn an average income of $281,359) will pay $37,361.

While opinions regarding the size of the burden these payments place on taxpayers may vary, such estimates provide important context when discussing the performance and sustainability of Canada’s health-care system. For example, the average individual who paid more than $4,000 for public health-care insurance this year may it find difficult to excuse the 18.3-week wait for medical treatment (after referral from a family doctor).

In order to assess whether we receive good value for our money, it’s important to first get a clearer understanding of how much we actually pay for public health-care insurance. Canada’s health-care system is neither “free” nor unique in its goal of “universality”—and it’s important for us to pursue policies that enable delivery of the best health-care services we can afford without breaking the bank.


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