Monday, August 15, 2011



It's been more than 40 years since Canadians faced ruin because of medical bills. It used to be a spectre  over every family.  But ever since medicare began in 1966, we no longer have to worry.
Or do we?
What about parents whose kids ignore the health ministry's reminder about travel insurance and head for Florida beaches for spring break? What about Snowbirds who skip insurance because of the hefty premiums when they flee winter?
If you're lucky, the hospital bill will be only $70,000! I know, because that's what a mere nine days in  West Virginia hospitals cost before the $12,000 air ambulance trip to the hostile reception at St. Joseph's Health Care Centre.
Fortunately Mary and I were insured. Green Shield covers me for a month out of the country. We were covered for a second month by travel insurance costing $626.
Yet I have friends who gamble and go naked of protection. As I write, one is on a quick trip south and couldn't get insurance because of a problem after a recent cruise. There are cases where insurance bureaucrats refuse to pay because they claim questions about "pre-existing questions" were fibbed.
One point of my Sun "hospital hell" series was that we are being robbed of proper care by inadequate staffing and "restraints" even though OHIP takes 43% of the provincial budget.
E-mails from readers support that, as did the recent Canadian Medical Association study saying "the once proud system is in distress." Sounds like a broken record! How many studies do we need into the frustrating, miserable, even dangerous, condition of medicare? (For dismal reading, look at the report on
 I got a response from Health Minister Deb Matthews about my costly delay in getting home. Matthews conceded to me that "there is a gap and we are working to address it. "
 She argues the "vast majority" get back without much difficulty "but partly in response to your stories and some others," she has asked the Ontario Medical Association to work with reps from the hospital association, travel industry and her critical care secretariat to develop a new protocol. "We can do better," she says, if patients anxious to get home are not dealt with on an individual basis.
Of course the insurance industry has a huge stake in speeding our returns. But so have Canadians. Readers have told me they only got a relative home because a relative working in the Ontario hospital fought from the inside. They've said Canadians in the U.S. are at the bottom of  wait list because they're already being treated.
Liz Potash wrote me that Matthews was only one of the leaders she contacted in the two-month fight to get her husband back from Florida last year. The ordeal stunned them. "What is happening to our system when a citizen is gravely ill and not one single bed in any hospital in Ontario can be found," she wrote.
Exactly the same was written to me by Laurie Leveille who says the average Canadian doesn't recognize the "insanity" in medicare unless they have to endure it "kicking and screaming." Her late son spent terrible months in Mexico before, in awful irony, a Florida hospital agreed to take him. The struggle to get him into the Niagara Health System took seven months.  (The system has just been placed under a provincial supervisor because of merger problems and a deadly outbreak.)
Several readers wondered why I wrote about costs because they said their private insurance paid almost everything that OHIP didn't.  As if we don't pay for OHIP through our taxes. As if we don't pay directly or indirectly for private insurance. My premiums for the Sun plan for retirees is $390 monthly, rising from the $266 I paid in 2008 because of what administrators said were high health costs.
 Green Shield may have paid $4,660 of the $6,450 bill that St. Joe's charged me, but bills like that are the reason my premiums jump.
You may ask for a semi-private room but you will be charged the higher fee for private if you are in intensive care or the hospital claims semi-private wasn't available. Yet the main bill isn't the end of it. I paid another $658 at St. Joe's.  Hospitals today are more efficient at picking your pocket on incidentals than in answering your call button at 3 a.m.  So you pay $75 a month for phone service, and have to provide the phone. You pay for TV even when it doesn't work.  Runnymede charges $60 monthly for laundry, even if you don't use it. And it billed me $3,333 in advance. Unfortunately, it still hasn't given me a full accounting.
It hasn't been an easy return to health from my admission to the first of four hospitals on, appropriately, April Fool's Day.
I have had plenty of down time to reflect on the costs and tribulations since I have daily visits from a community nurse for the bed sore wounds. They may continue for months and certainly cripple my movements and summer. But I thank heaven, and you should too, because the Community Care Access Centre means I can be at home and not in hospital with its costs. You and I as taxpayers would have saved a lot if only those deep ulcers hadn't been allowed to dig in so evilly.
There is a humorous side, but then I have to search hard to find it. I have had months of daily inspection of my bottom by nurses. I laughed when Dr. Franklynne Vincent, the friendly dermatologist who is the wonderful weapon against wounds at St. Joe's,  admired how the wounds were healing. I said I had waited  60 years for a woman to admire my bum but the eroticism was ruined by the setting.
It's an interesting start to my daily routine to have a woman come to my bedroom and start tweaking and patting my bottom.  It almost makes up for Vincent and a plastic surgeon who twice have cut flesh away  so a "vac" can be inserted to drain the wounds.
 Now I have to carry an awkward three-pound vacuum box around my neck and lots of tubing every bloody second of the day and night.  If only it was filled with rum. That might ease my gloom over the last months and my fear that despite all the political rhetoric and CMA studies, the only thing that will change will be ever higher costs.

Monday, August 1, 2011



 Many Torontonians don't realize they live in one of the best and most competitive newspaper cities in the world.
The paper wars continue even though the fiercest, the storied past of the hand-to-typewriter combat of the Star vs. the Telegram, has ended because of the Tely's death in 1971. As a bloodied participant, I can assure you that it was far more intense, and more fun, than any Hollywood movie.
There weren't as many fist fights between the champions of the big two dailies by the time I arrived as a kid reporter in 1958.  Not that bare knuckle disagreements had ended. There were several dandy ones between my colleagues, one right by the city desk which was ignored by everyone, including the chap who had been knocked flat. The press club had a few brawls fueled by booze and egos.
But we sure fought it out in print edition by edition five times a day. You could be a champ with your Page One scoop at noon and by the final edition, a chump because the Star beat reporter had been driven through the tongue-lashing of the city editor to find an even better story.
Peter Worthington, who seems to have been writing since Biblical days, gave us a wonderful account of the Tely-Star brawls in a column in the Sunday Sun on July 30. The apt headline: "When Newspapers And Reporters Slugged It Out."
I got an early introduction to the fact I had enlisted in a tough trade when I was assigned to go with a bulldog of a photographer named Don Grant to cover a Teamsters' strike. The picketers cursed us as we approached and one threatened Grant. Grant said: "How would you like a Speed Graphic shoved in your face?" The Graphic was a great big box covered with metal protrusions that could take out an eye. Then Grant added that the young reporter with him could clean the clock of any striker. And I realized that I was there as a bodyguard and had perhaps been hired more because I had been a football lineman than because of any ability to write.
Even the mildest colleague would turn out to be a lion in heat when faced by the Star or adversity, which was often the same thing.
We had a gentle soul named Russell Cooper who looked like a failed anonymous clerk. Except we knew  he lived across the street from his cousin, Premier Bill Davis. And that he was rich enough not to have to work - we joked he had a stock ticker in his cottage outhouse. He drove like a madman and acted like one when anyone told him he couldn't take a picture.
And Cooper was great on police searches for escaped criminals because several times he did the capturing. No wonder he ended up on a police commission.
One day he and a freelancer named Ron Laytner were walking down a farm lane while police searched for a dangerous mental patient. They met a man carrying a shotgun. As they talked, Cooper figured out that this was the escapee. So he leaped on him, they fell to the ground, Cooper wrestled the shotgun away and shouted for the nearest cop. Laytner, of course, took a picture of the struggle and announced he was selling it to the Star.
That night we plotted in the city room about how we could manufacture a picture to go with Cooper's great first-person story. Another reporter and I took a broom to the Tely's skimpy parking lot and in the dark posed in wrestling positions on the ground. The photographer tried various shots including ones slightly out of focus. Except after the prints emerged from the darkroom, everyone decided that the dark fuzzy shots looked vaguely like two guys fighting over a stick.
The next morning, we sent our best copy boy to stand by the Star presses. (They didn't print up at Hudson Bay then.) He grabbed the first clean copy and raced two blocks to the old Tely. We copied the Star picture and then ran it on Page One with Cooper's story and a note saying that this picture had to be copied from the Star because the Tely man was too busy disarming the dangerous escapee.
In the days when even Popular Mechanics didn't predict the explosion of cell phones, getting to a pay phone with your story was just as important as digging up the story. So if the story was in a remote area served by one road, you bribed a bulldozer operator to park sideways on the road so the Star couldn't get to a phone. There were reporters who dictated the phone book over the line just so the Star couldn't get to use it.
Everyone was covering an inquest into the drowning of five Mounties in an overloaded boat on Lake Simcoe in 1958.. (The incident sparked the law mandating that all boats had to have a plate showing its maximum load.) Our reporter got to the nearest pay phone first and after dictating his story unscrewed the ear piece and pocketed it. The Star reporter was shut out for one edition until he unscrewed the mouth piece and kept it.  A smooth flow to both newsrooms resumed when the two worked out a truce.
There were few truces except at the press club bar and even then relations could become strained in a hurry. Brawlers were suspended for suitable periods. And then there was Duncan Macpherson, the wonderful Star cartoonist, who was suspended three times for life. The last suspension was delivered by me as chairman of the house committee because Duncan had eaten the tie of a friend to whom I was talking at the time (while he was wearing it) and then ripped up one end of the bar when I criticized him.
The next day, penitent, he apologized, saying I was a real newspaper guy and not like all those jerk flacks who "infested" the place.
I felt like I had arrived.