Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams’ Heart Surgery in the U.S. Triggers Debate on Healthcare in Canada
In recent years, Newfoundland pathology lab’s errors involving breast cancer testing made headlines
Once again, Newfoundland finds itself in the headlines about healthcare. This time it is not about breast cancer testing problems in its pathology laboratories. Instead, media reports are trumpeting the disclosure that Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams had quietly left the country earlier this month to undergo major heart surgery in the United States.
Danny Williams’ decision caused negative reactions among the press and commentators in the United States and Canada. After all, why would a senior elected official from Newfoundland decide to leave Canada, which has national health insurance, and seek care in the U.S., where the Congress is debating the merits of a national health insurance plan? It was disclosed that Williams underwent a major heart procedure on Thursday, February 4, at an undisclosed hospital in Florida.
Critics point out that Williams’ choice to undergo his surgery in a U.S. hospital contrasts dramatically against the poor care that hundreds of breast cancer patients received in Newfoundland in earlier years. It was October 2005, when the Canadian public became aware of inaccuracies in breast cancer testing performed by the pathology laboratory that serves the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Based on an outside review of 1,013 breast cancer patients who had tested negative between May 1997 and August 2005, it was determined that, because of inaccurate pathology tests on estrogen receptors, 383 women in the retest group had not gotten appropriate treatment. Of this number, 108 patients had died by the time the pathology test review was conducted. (See The Dark Report, May 18, 2009: ER/PR Testing in Canada Continues to Make News.)
The spokesperson for Williams said he made the decision after weeks of consultation with his doctors, and because the procedure he needed was not available in the province, according to reporting by Camwest. Williams is a lawyer and millionaire businessman.
“The move raised questions about whether he could have the operation in Canada,” reported the Toronto Star. Williams left the province on Monday February 1 for the unspecified cardiac procedure at an undisclosed U.S. hospital, the Star reported.
Camwest quoted Williams’ spokesperson, Kathy Dunderdale, who said, “The premier hasn’t done anything that anybody else in the same circumstances wouldn’t have considered and acted in the same way.” Williams, age 60, and his family asked that their privacy be respected, Dunderdale said, adding that criticism of the premier’s decision was unacceptable.
Conservative Senator Wilbert Keon, a retired heart surgeon and professor emeritus at University of Ottawa, told the Toronto Star that Newfoundland lacks the equipment and post-op technical support for advanced complicated cardiac procedures. But complicated heart surgery can be done at Ottawa’s Heart Institute and in Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton, he said. “I can’t imagine anything that couldn’t be done in Canada that is done in America,” he added.
One question raised in the wake of Williams’ decision is whether the premier has confidence in Canada’s health-care system. In the United States, critics of the President Obama’s plan to reform the U.S. healthcare system said that Williams’ decision shows that national health insurance may be a prescription for poor quality care.
Another interesting aspect to this episode is how the bill for Danny Williams’ heart surgery was paid. The provincial health programs do have mechanisms to pay for care provided to residents when out of the country. To date, it is unknown whether Williams paid for his medical care in the United States from his own funds, or whether Newfoundland Health paid those bills.
It was just last year, after the Cameron Commission reported its findings about the multi-year problems in the Newfoundland pathology laboratory that contributed to inaccurate results for hormone testing for breast cancer, that the Williams’ government apologized to the public. This background is another reason why the media gave extensive coverage to the Newfoundland premier’s decision to seek advanced heart care in the United States.