William Watts of Toronto was 76 when he died in January 1989. His scheduled heart surgery had been postponed nine times because nurses and beds were unavailable. He never received the medical attention he needed, but at least it was "free."

In October 1990, Stella LaCroix of Wyebridge, Ontario ingested some quantity of muriatic acid. For three and one-half hours, the emergency physician at the Huronia District Hospital telephoned no fewer than fourteen hospitals to secure emergency surgery and an intensive care bed. Stella's problem couldn't wait for the system to get its act together. That night she died. Her medical care was also free.

William Watts and Stella LaCroix were victims of more than mere physical afflictions. They were victims of that giant bundle of good intentions know as the Canadian health care system. Their stories, and tens of thousands of others just like it from amongst our northern neighbors, are especially instructive in light of some recent talk in Lansing.

Rep. Perry Bullard, D-Ann Arbor, argues that Michigan should mimic the Canadian program and create a plan for "free," universal health care. All residents, he says, should be covered--and, of course, required to pay the taxes that will fund the system, like it or not. It would be administered by the same outfit--the state government--which in 1989 took over a financially healthy workers compensation insurer, the Accident Fund, and turned it into a politicized and loss-incurring white elephant in less than two years.

Such a notion for health care reminds me of Henry David Thoreau's poignant remark, "If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house to do me good, I would run for my life."

Basic economics tells us that when government intervenes and makes a valuable good or service available for nothing, demand goes up while the quantity and quality of the supply fall behind--especially if unaccountable civil servants are at the throttle. That summarizes the recent history of health care in Canada.

A revealing dissection of the Canadian system was published by the Washington, D.C. -based Heritage Foundation in November 1989. Author Michael Walker showed conclusively that to manage the crisis created by making medicine a "freebie," the Canadian government has rigidly controlled physician fees, limited the introduction of new technology and curtailed the availability of many services.

Proponents of socialized medicine are fond of pointing out that Canada spends just 8.5 percent of its GNP on health care while by comparison the U.S. spends 12 percent. Put the government in charge, they say, and medicine will cost Americans less.

Actually, the real cost of Canada's increasingly politicized system is measured by more than dollars. Lengthy wait lists for a variety of medical procedures are common. The poor are stuck with an indifferent bureaucracy while the better off can go elsewhere, particularly the U.S.

Those real costs show up in another, deadly way: much vital equipment and many important services are not around when they're needed. Walker points out that the city of Seattle (with a population of half a million) has more CAT scanners than the entire Canadian province of British Columbia (population, 3 million). There are more NMR imaging machines--the latest powerful diagnostic tool--in Washington state than in all of Canada. In Newfoundland, it now takes two months to get an "urgent" pap smear to detect cervical cancer.

Waiting lists in Toronto forced that city's Hospital for Sick Children to send home 40 children who needed heart surgery--all in the space of one month's time. "For every person in a hospital bed in Ontario," says Dr. David Peachey of the Ontario Medical Association, "there are 2 1/2 waiting to get in. And it's going to get worse."

Crippling strikes in Canada's monopolized system are not uncommon. In 1988, nurses in Alberta shut down virtually that province's entire health care system for six weeks. Work slowdowns and stoppages by employees of the system and even disgruntled physicians themselves have cut services to some degree in nearly every province.

Rather than try to treat the symptoms of Michigan's health care dilemma with a potion that's worse than the disease, the legislature should be thinking of policies that could really make a difference for the better: refundable tax credits for poor families' medical insurance; a rollback of state-mandated health benefits that increase the cost of insurance; medical investment accounts patterned after IRA's to assist individuals in affording health care; and the kind of tort reform that will bring down doctors' sky-high liability costs, to name a few good ideas.

Michigan's health care system has its problems, but they shouldn't be traded for Canada's problems even if they are "free."