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Council of Canadians opposes user-pay MRIs in Saskatchewan

Michael ButlerThe Council of Canadians is opposing the Saskatchewan government’s new legislation that would allow more user-pay MRI scans in that province.

The CBC reports, “Health Minister Dustin Duncan introduced legislation [May 6] that would pave the way for more people to get private scans, if they have the cash. It proposes that patients could pay a private clinic for a magnetic resonance imaging scan if they choose. Duncan said the changes could be in place to allow for MRI scans at private clinics as soon as next spring. For every scan paid for privately, clinics would be required to provide a scan at no charge to a patient on the public wait list. The price of a private MRI will be set by the clinic, and the idea is it will cover the cost of at least two MRIs.”

The Saskatoon Star Phoenix adds, “Last year, 33,000 patients had MRIs in the province. However, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people were waiting for an MRI as of the end of March, according to data from the health ministry. Urgent MRIs, which should be done within a week, are taking as long as seven weeks to happen in Saskatoon. Semi-urgent MRIs that should happen within a month are taking as long as six months to accommodate, and non-urgent scans, as long as eight or nine months. …The province’s goal is for the least-urgent MRIs to happen within three months.”

That article also notes, “According to a 2014 Canadian Institute for Health Information report, Saskatchewan patients had the second-shortest MRI wait times in the country of the six provinces with comparable data. Alberta’s MRI wait times are about three times longer than in Saskatchewan, according to CIHI data.”

Council of Canadians health care campaigner Michael Butler has been a vocal opponent of user-pay MRIs, highlighting they actually increase wait times.

He has commented, “What Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall is talking about is queue jumping for the rich and further stepping away from universal, publicly funded health care for the people in Saskatchewan. When you have a two-tiered system with private clinics for the rich, it makes staff shortages even worse as health professionals are poached from the public system. Moreover, with private MRI clinics we have seen that they are located in urban centres (where the wealthiest clients are), removing scarce health care professionals, capacity and funding from rural areas.”

Butler also notes, “We only have to looks as far as Ontario and Manitoba where studies have shown that the introduction of private clinics for MRIs increased wait times in local public hospitals because they poached scarce technologists and radiologists; this reduced the number of hours that the local public hospitals’ MRIs could operate. When Alberta introduced their private MRIs, it is has been highlighted that one Calgary hospital lost three of five diagnostic technologists to a new MRI clinic that offered signing bonuses of up to $10,000. Similar pressures are being reported in Nova Scotia.”

Instead of user-pay MRIs, Butler says, “The limited number of technicians to run the machines is a serious factor which increases wait times. Investing in human capital for public health care – which in the absence of a renegotiated Health Accord is increasingly difficult for provinces – is an issue we can’t ignore and perhaps a place the Saskatchewan government could put some focus. There are public solutions to address these problems that allow a medicare system based on equity and need to continue. The real solutions to wait times involve us protecting, strengthening, and expanding our public medicare.”

The Council of Canadians shares the concerns being expressed by CUPE, Canadian Doctors for Medicare and others about more user-pay MRI scans in Saskatchewan.

Further reading
User-pay MRI legislation will reduce access and only increase wait lists (CUPE media release)
Addressing waits? Private MRIs a step in the wrong direction (Canadian Doctors for Medicare media release)

Photo: Council of Canadians health care campaigner Michael Butler.