Sask. Opposition calls on province to halt privately paid MRIs after Ottawa reclaimed $750,000 in health funds

Saskatchewan NDP chair Carla Beck said the Saskatchewan government had violated Canada's public health law with its privately paid MRI program.  (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press - photo credit)

Saskatchewan NDP chair Carla Beck said the Saskatchewan government had violated Canada’s public health law with its privately paid MRI program. (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press – photo credit)

Saskatchewan’s official opposition is calling on the provincial government to end its privately paid MRI program.

On Friday, Ottawa announced its decision to reclaim nearly $750,000 in health care transfers to Saskatchewan as patients were billed through a privately paid program for medically necessary diagnostic imaging services.

Exchange between the opposition NDP and Sask. The party government was heated during question time with lawmakers on Monday. The NDP called the privately paid program a “failed for-profit American-style MRI experiment.”

Sask. NDP Chair Carla Beck said the province had violated the Canada Health Act.

“The Sask. Party knew they were breaking the law from day one, knew these cuts were coming, and still didn’t do anything,” Beck said.

“Our hospitals are overcrowded and the last thing anyone wants to see is even less funding.”

But Health Secretary Paul Merriman stood by the program.

“We have to use every option that we currently have on the table for our healthcare system, and that is the private system, both publicly funded and private practice,” Merriman said.

The health minister said 99 percent of the cost of scanning will be borne by the provincial government, not taxpayers.

The NDP said since Saskatchewan started its privately paid MRI program in 2016, wait times for an MRI have not decreased, but increased 63 percent.

Alexander Quon/CBC

Alexander Quon/CBC

The opposition called on the provincial government to immediately shut down the privately paid program and get involved in the new budget, which came into force on March 22.

Merriman did not say the privately paid program would end. In fact, he said it might even be expanded.

Under Saskatchewan rules, if a private provider performs a privately paid MRI or CT scan, Merriman said they must perform a second free scan for a person waiting on the public list.

“No, we will not change this policy, Mr. Speaker, because it is 15,000 scans, Mr. Speaker, that were paid for by the people of Saskatchewan, which equals 30,000 scans that were actually done for our province. It speeds up the process for surgeries, Mr. Speaker. The federal government should not have done this,” Merriman said.

Merriman said an overwhelming majority of people in Saskatchewan want the privately paid MRI option. NDP health critic Vicki Mowat disagreed.

“Just utter nonsense. He knows that strengthening the public system is an option, and in this case it is the option, and he makes it so that it is not an option at all. Shameful. Shameful,” said Mowat. “Mr. Speaker, let’s be clear about what’s going on. The Sask party government is breaking Canada’s health care law.”

Meanwhile, Merriman said feedback from patients and doctors has been positive.

Health policy expert concerned about ‘market’ for scans

Dennis Kendel, a health policy expert and retired physician, said the Sask. government “absolutely” violated the Canada Health Act.

“There’s no doubt about that.”

Trent Peppler/CBC

Trent Peppler/CBC

Kendel said there are two clinics in Saskatchewan that offer privately paid MRIs — Mayfair Diagnostic, which has clinics in both Saskatoon and Regina, and Open Skies in Regina.

Mayfair announces their prices online, while Open Skies does not.

“I’ve seen some people on Twitter explaining that they were among those paying for a test and they didn’t apologize for that. They said, ‘As long as I can afford it, it’s my right to go ahead and get a test.’ I find that pretty insensitive to people who don’t have those resources,” Kendel said.

He said he heard from families on Twitter who told him they couldn’t afford to pay for an MRI.

“But it was a child and they were so concerned about the delay that they went ahead and paid for it.”

Kendel said this type of system is worrying.

“What we really need to do is fund enough public capacity to ensure everyone has access to this test during this time,” Kendel said.

“There is no point in underfunding a particular diagnostic procedure and thereby essentially creating a market for direct payments. That’s essentially what they did. They’ve underfunded the public sector, and then there’s a market and it’s being filled.”


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