Saskatchewan selling health care as a status symbol

A wealthy person can now boast at cocktail parties about getting that knee replacement fast, thanks to having quick access to an MRI

child careRED DEER, Alta. Jan. 23, 2017 /Troy Media/ – When Saskatchewan signed its solo deal with the feds on health-care funding recently, the province also won a year’s grace to test middle-ground for-profit MRI clinics.

Perhaps they didn’t learn from Alberta’s attempt to allow more private investment in for-profit health care (hint: it hasn’t worked very well).

Not long ago, Canada’s 13 provincial premiers and territorial leaders trashed a federal offer at a pan-Canadian funding formula that they said was just too lean. Since then, seven of those 13 leaders have hammered out their own deals for health-care funding.

Thus Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, plus Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut have all completed agreements outside the pan-Canadian offer the feds withdrew when it was rejected the first time. Together, they represent about 10 per cent of Canada’s population.

Whether that constitutes a significant breach in provincial ranks is a question for another day. As well, let’s set aside for now the question of whether making side deals on funding will result in some provinces getting more money than others for our supposedly national health-care program.

What Saskatchewan has achieved could well change how Canadians think about our “free” health-care system, while making queue-jumping a new status symbol for the well-to-do.

Saskatchewan’s deal comes with three riders: $190 million over 10 years earmarked for home-care services; $158.8 million over 10 years for mental health care; and a one-year licence to allow private MRI scanning services outside the national health plan.

In Alberta, you can book an MRI at a private clinic, not having to wait in line for services within the public system. Since adopting that model, private investors have made Alberta second from the top in the country for the number of MRI machines per capita (according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information).

That may be good for investors but Albertans still wait anywhere from 87 days (mid-range for the country) to 247 days (the 98th percentile) to access a scan.

Saskatchewan’s wait times range between 28 and 88 days, yet all the talk is about people from Saskatchewan having to come to Alberta and pay for an MRI that their doctors say they need.

Bottom line: Alberta’s abundance of MRI machines has done nothing to shorten wait times in the public system.

A Globe and Mail inquiry in 2015 found that publicly-funded MRIs in Alberta can cost $550 to $1,000 – and you’ll wait weeks or even months to get one. You can get one privately much more quickly for anywhere from $750 to $2,450.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s deal will allow private MRIs – with a catch. Sure, if you’re rich you can get a private MRI within days. But the clinic will also be required to give one free MRI to someone on the public waiting list.

That makes the wealthy private patient into someone’s benefactor.

Think about it: a wealthy person can boast at cocktail parties about getting that knee replacement fast, thanks to having quick access to an MRI. At the same time, they’ll be allowing some poor slob the same advantage, without that person developing an addiction to opiates for pain, while languishing on the public wait list.

If that’s not selling health care as a status symbol, I invite you to invent a better one.

Send your suggestions to Wall. He’s open to great ideas like that.

Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer, Alta. Greg is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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