Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Allan Blakeney, Pioneer of Canadian Health Care, Dies at 85

New York Times
April 19, 2011

Allan Blakeney, the health minister of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan who helped start North America’s first tax-financed universal health care system in 1962, and was later the province’s premier, died Saturday at his home in Saskatoon. He was 85.

The Saskatchewan government said the cause was liver cancer.

In 1946, the government of Tommy Douglas, then Saskatchewan’s premier, enacted universal insurance coverage for hospitalization. Mr. Douglas’s successor, Woodrow Lloyd expanded the program in 1962 to include the costs of medical care provided by doctors.

Nine out of 10 doctors responded by going on strike, people demonstrated in support of the doctors and newspapers editorialized in their favor. Mr. Blakeney, as the health minister in Mr. Lloyd’s government, became the main negotiator with the physicians. He succeeded in keeping the new system — partly by emphasizing its lower cost — but compromised to give doctors the right to charge fees for services, rather than going on salary.

Mr. Blakeney later called the brouhaha the “the greatest social conflict I was involved in.” By 1966, universal medical coverage had been extended to all Canadians. Opposition to the plan in Saskatchewan, however, helped the Liberal Party defeat Mr. Lloyd’s government in 1964.

Mr. Blakeney remained a member of the provincial legislature and practiced law. But by 1970, he had become leader of the provincial New Democratic Party, and he led it to victory the next year.

As Saskatchewan’s premier, a post he held until 1982, he put into effect a flurry of programs he called a New Deal for People. These included a dental program for children, a prescription drug program, subsidized housing, home care and a guaranteed income supplement for the elderly poor. He helped pass a law to allow the government to purchase land from older farmers, so it in turn could rent the land to their children, making it financially feasible for them to stay on the family homestead.

Mr. Blakeney aggressively increased the fees charged by the province for mining potash, a component of fertilizer. After foreign producers, largely American, refused to pay, Mr. Blakeney’s government seized the mines of companies producing more than 40 percent of the province’s potash, paying what it said was a fair market price. Both the companies and the United States government protested, but the action stood.

Mr. Blakeney also became a force on the national scene during the discussions over Canada’s new Constitution in the early 1980s. He successfully argued for more power for provincial legislatures.

Allan Emrys Blakeney was born on Sept. 7, 1925, in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, and grew up dreaming of being a sea captain. He earned a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, then studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, earning a bachelor’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics. He worked as a civil servant in the Saskatchewan government until he was elected to the provincial legislature in 1960. In addition to being provincial health minister, he was also minister of education and treasurer.

He ran unsuccessfully to return to the premier’s job in 1986, then retired from politics two years later. Mr. Blakeney’s first wife, the former Molly Schwartz, died in 1957. His survivors include his wife, the former Anne Gorham, and four children.

Mr. Blakeney watched the United States’ debate on health care, which resulted in the Affordable Health Care for America Act of 2009, with keen interest. He called the American law “a painfully small step.”

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