Latimer: Troubling income-related gap

We like to think of ourselves as living in a relatively equitable nation.

People from all political stripes tend to boast about Canada’s ‘universal’ health care and see it as proof that we take care of our own.

Of course, there are many critics of the way the system is run and in recent years there has been much discussion about reforms that will be needed to bolster and ensure its sustainability in the coming decades.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) recently released results of a poll showing a worrisome correlation between income and health status in our country that raises even more red flags.

According to Canada’s physicians, in spite of our reputation for ‘universal’ health care, there is a widening gap in health status separating people according to their income.

The poll results, used in the CMA’s 2012 National Report Card on Canada’s health care system, found that only 39 per cent of respondents earning less than $30,000 per year described their health as excellent or very good, compared with 68 per cent of those earning $60,000 or more. Further, 59 per cent of those earning less than $30,000 had accessed some form of health care within the past month compared with 43 per cent of those earning a higher income.

Perhaps poor health has left some Canadians underemployed and thus earning lower incomes; perhaps socioeconomic factors such as housing or nutrition are negatively impacting the health of lower income Canadians; or perhaps those in the lower income bracket are facing health care barriers because of a lack of affordability.

As good as it may be, Canada’s system is far from universal in some areas. Prescription medications are a good example of an important aspect of health care that can be greatly impacted by income.

Nearly a quarter of poll respondents in the lower income category had either delayed or stopped buying prescription drugs compared with only three perc ent of those earning $60,000 or more.

Another result in the poll found a sharp divide in tobacco use between income brackets with 33 per cent of those in the lower group reporting daily tobacco use compared with only 10 per cent in the higher income group.

The poll also found a significant impact from the economic downturn seen in recent years. Nearly half of respondents in the lower income group reported they were spending less time, energy and money sustaining their health as the economy slowed. Only 19 per cent of those with higher incomes said the same.

I join with my colleagues in pressing for transformation within our system so that the health and health care needs of all Canadians can be put first. Income should not determine health or access to necessary health services.

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