POLITICS

Bernie Sanders Wants Canadians To 'Be A Little Bit Louder' With Health Debate

The U.S. senator also called out drug companies for ripping off Canadians.

10/29/2017 19:01 EDT | Updated 10/29/2017 22:23 EDT

TORONTO — U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders urged Canadians on Sunday to snap out of their nice stereotypes and get noisy about demanding a national pharmacare program.

The former candidate for the Democratic Party presidential ticket spoke to a sold-out crowd at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall that included students, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Steve Russell via Getty Images
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne welcomes Senator Bernie Sanders at the University of Toronto on Oct. 29, 2017.

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh listens to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at the University of Toronto on Oct. 29, 2017.

Sanders urged the crowd not to fixate on the shortcomings of Canadian health care and emphasized the lack of worry about medical debts if they get sick here.

"I know that Canadians are well-known throughout the world as gentle and kind people. Be a little bit louder," he said. "Stand up and fight for what you have achieved and defend it."

Sanders turned his ire on the pharmaceutical industry for continuing to "rip off the people of the United States, Canada, or any place else when they're making unbelievably excessive profits."

The independent senator spent a majority of his time lecturing the Canadian audience about the genesis of American health insurance and the current state of U.S. Medicare that has 28 million people without coverage.

Sanders blamed the GOP for threading "intentional lies and distortions" into the health-care debate. He referenced Sen. Rand Paul's argument from 2011 that compared the right to health care to slavery.

"These are very intentional lies in order to convince the American people that the dysfunctional system we have is the best that we can do," he said.

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders gets up to speak at the University of Toronto on Oct. 29, 2017.

Steve Russell via Getty Images
A sold-out crowd greeted U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in Toronto on Oct. 29, 2017.

The Toronto keynote comes a month after Sanders unveiled an enhanced version of his medicare program. The Medicare for All Act proposes the creation of a single-payer health system to replace almost all private health insurance.

It's been billed as one of, if not the most, ambitious social welfare initiative in U.S. history.

Wynne, who is vying for re-election in spring 2018, used her introduction to Sanders as an opportunity to plug her Ontario Liberal government's own socialist-inspired initiatives. She referenced programs to make prescription drugs free to everyone aged 24 and under, as well as a pledge to make tuition free to 210,000 students across Ontario.

That remark about free tuition earned some claps from Sanders, who tabled a similar bill in April for many students in the U.S.

Watch: Sanders throws a dig at Trump in front of Canadian crowd

Sanders is in Ontario for a two-day tour of hospitals with a delegation of American health-care providers to learn how the Canadian system works.

Dr. Danielle Martin, a Toronto-based family doctor who has been instrumental in the creation of Sanders' new medicare plan, told media after the event that Canada is overdue for a national pharmacare program.

"It's ridiculous that in the 21st century, our health-care system includes universal access to doctors and hospitals, but not to the prescription medicines like patients, my patients, need," she said.

Last month, the parliamentary budget officer released an analysis of the potential impact of a universal pharmacare program in Canada. It concluded that a national, universal program would reduce drug spending by $4.2 billion.

The report prompted NDP MP Don Davies to table a motion proposing to study and implement universal pharmacare. It was defeated in the House earlier this month by the Conservatives and Liberals in a 246 to 43 vote.

Despite all the cheers for Sanders and his socialist message, his speech wasn't the bromide one Toronto physician was hoping for.

Dr. Prabhat Jha, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said he was "very impressed" with Sanders, but felt some nuances between the Canadian and American systems were missing.

"The U.S. debate, including from Senator Sanders, has been a little bit disingenuous because you can't have your cake and eat it too," Jha told HuffPost Canada.

"In Canada, we make a trade-off that we do have to wait in a queue, go through a GP to see a specialist." He said it's a reality "many Americans" don't want, adding if people want to see a cardiologist or another specialist, they're less likely to want to go through a middleman.

Jha said there's a difference between universal access to health coverage and universal coverage for all services, and that it's easy for audiences to conflate to the two in stump speeches.

"So a little more honesty about what those trade-offs are, I think would get more people on board."

More from HuffPost Canada: