Saskatchewan to send patients to Alberta for privatized surgery; won't pay for travel

·3 min read

REGINA — Saskatchewan plans to send people to Alberta to get privatized surgeries, but the cost of travel won't be covered by the government.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said the Saskatchewan Party government will begin paying a Calgary clinic this fall to perform 20 knee and hip surgeries a month for those on the province's surgical wait list.

"If somebody does have the option to go to Calgary, they will incur the travel expenses back and forth, but they would have their surgery done considerably faster," Merriman said.

"If somebody … has the financial means, they can do that and that opens up another spot within the public system."

Colleen Flood, University of Ottawa research chair in health law and policy, said the move would affect patients in lower socioeconomic circumstances who may find it more difficult to pay the cost of travel and, therefore, lose out on access to timely care

"That really is an additional user charge that's being added onto the patient, and that's in contravention of the Canada Health Act," Flood said.

"If the Saskatchewan government is planning on sending patients abroad, or to other jurisdictions, they need to make sure there's some assistance and compensation for the travel costs that they may incur."

NDP Opposition Leader Carla Beck criticized the delivery of out-of-province care, saying it would allow people to jump the line, which goes against the principles of the Canadian health-care system.

The Ministry of Health said there were more than 35,000 people waiting for a surgery as of March 31 with more than 8,000 patients waiting for hip or knee replacement surgeries alone.

Sending some patients to Calgary is part of Saskatchewan's aggressive plan to have the shortest surgical wait list in the country, Merriman said.

The province is also looking to open two private clinics within its public health system, with hopes that a Regina clinic will perform more than 3,000 orthopedic surgeries annually. The surgeries will be privately delivered, but publicly funded.

Merriman pitched the plan as providing choices to patients. When someone is being booked for a knee or hip surgery, they will have the choice to either access care in a private clinic, through the public system or travel to Calgary.

"It's not a political decision," Merriman said. "It's a clinical decision on where the specialist sees them in the queue."

Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his Progressive Conservative government would "get creative" when looking at ways to deliver surgeries as it deals with a staffing crisis in hospitals that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like Saskatchewan, provinces throughout Canada have health-care systems that are partially privatized, including long-term care homes, family doctors, MRI tests and diagnostics.

In Saskatchewan, privately delivered surgeries accounted for 15 per cent of all surgeries performed in 2019-20, the Ministry of Health said.

Flood cautioned that opening the door to private clinics could place more pressure on politicians to privatize other services.

"The risk with these kinds of things is that once they're in place inside a public health-care system, they don't just sit there passively working away and they're all happy clams," Flood said. "They're going to want to make more money."

She said transparency is important and provincial governments need to remain clear "this is all within the public Medicare system" and will be "keeping their eyes very firmly fixed on the performance of these clinics … and making sure they deliver."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press