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Why Americans Have Been Deceived About Canada's Health Care System

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Every election brings with it debates over health care. Amanda Aronczyk, with our Planet Money podcast, noticed that the word Canada keeps coming up again and again in those debates and how the Canadian system would supposedly never work here. As a Canadian living in the U.S., to Amanda, that was confusing. So she went digging.

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AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: When I first moved to the U.S. 20 years ago, people would say the strangest things to me about Canadian health care - that Canadians wait forever, that doctors don't want to work there and, weirdly specifically, that Canadians get left on gurneys in the hallways of hospitals to die. These rumors were everywhere. They were in TV ads...

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Now Washington wants to bring Canadian-style health care to the U.S. But government should never...

ARONCZYK: ...In political talking points. Here is George Bush Sr. back in 1992.

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GEORGE HW BUSH: And if you think socialized medicine is a good idea, ask a Canadian for a second opinion.

ARONCZYK: No one asked me. But if they had, I would have told them that none of this matched my experience living in Canada. So I wondered, where are people getting these stories from? And then, this fall, I found the answer - from a man who worked in PR for health insurance companies for over 20 years named Wendell Potter.

WENDELL POTTER: Consistently, Americans view single-payer systems favorably. And that's always scared health insurance company executives. And so that's why you have to have these campaigns, to remind people, no, you don't want that. This is why.

ARONCZYK: Potter told me that it was his job to make Canadian health care sound so bad that no one would even consider its merits.

POTTER: I'm at fault here. The work I'm doing now is to make amends for all of the work that I did to perpetuate those myths about the Canadian system.

ARONCZYK: One of the ways Potter is making amends is by revealing how he smeared an entire health care system. He says there were three main tactics. Tactic No. 1, use anecdotes. Find Canadians who had negative experiences and disseminate their stories widely.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: I survived a brain tumor. But if I had relied on my government for health care, I'd be dead.

POTTER: The anecdote has a huge effect. And you don't need a lot of them. You can just tell these stories very effectively. And people will go, (gasp) I don't want a situation like that. It's incredibly effective.

ARONCZYK: Potter says, when anecdotes are not enough, pair them with tactic No. 2, cherry-picked statistics. For example, he'd play up how long Canadians have to wait. Thing is, he'd only focus on elective surgeries and the things that you can wait for.

POTTER: You want to make people believe that because Canadians might wait several weeks or a few months to get a knee replacement, that's indicative of everything in Canada.

ARONCZYK: Tactic No. 3, plaster the airwaves with negative ads.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #3: Government runs health care in Canada. Care is delayed or denied.

ARONCZYK: Potter says that these ads exist to make people fear the unknown.

POTTER: Fear, uncertainty and doubt. You know, the acronym is FUD. So these were FUD campaigns.

ARONCZYK: And they have been very effective.

POTTER: The anecdotes might change a little bit. And you might update some stats. But you can use them in 1991 or '94 or 2004 or 2020. That's how it works.

ARONCZYK: Potter says that even though he no longer works on campaigns like these, he has no doubt that these tactics will be back whenever there's a debate over health care.

Amanda Aronczyk, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DELI'S "FLOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.