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NDP, Sask Party tangle over private MRIs

Daily Leg Update - Opposition call it a “failed experiment,” but health minister says the province is going full steam ahead with private two for one MRI regime.
Paul Merriman speaks to reporters following Question Period March 13.

REGINA - All heck broke loose af the legislature Monday afternoon in Question Period over the issue of private MRIs.

The exchange in the Saskatchewan legislature came on the heels of news last week that the federal government was clawing back almost $750,000 in transfers over the province’s use of the private MRIs. Saskatchewan was among eight provinces that saw their transfers cut back by a grand total of $82 million over the use of private clinics to charge for medically necessary diagnostic services.

A livid NDP opposition issued a news release Monday calling for the ”government of Saskatchewan to immediately halt its disastrous American-style MRI experiment.” Meanwhile, inside the Assembly on Monday afternoon, Opposition Leader Carla Beck grilled the government on the issue in Question Period. The exchange was recorded in Hansard.

“Simple question to the Premier: will he scrap his failed American-style, private-pay health care scheme?”

Instead of Premier Scott Moe responding, it was Minister of Health Paul Merriman who responded.

“The short answer is no,” said Merriman. “We won’t be changing this policy because it’s done 15,000 scans that have been paid for by Saskatchewan people, which equals 30,000 scans that have actually been done for our province. This speeds up the process for surgeries, Mr. Speaker.

“The federal government should not have done this. They are taking tools off the table, Mr. Speaker, for us to be able to address the pressures.”

Beck pointed out that since the government passed its private-pay MRI bill in 2015, “average wait times for MRIs in this province have gone up 63 per cent, Mr. Speaker, 63 per cent. And those numbers, those numbers are directly from that government’s website.

“The question: how much longer will Saskatchewan people need to wait to access care before that Premier recognizes that his paying-out-of-pocket scheme for health care was a mistake?

“You know what, Mr. Speaker?” a fired-up Merriman responded. “I’ll tell the House and I’ll tell the opposition: this side of the House, we’re going to focus on delivering health care, not ideology that’s outdated, Mr. Speaker.

“… We believe that health care delivery is extremely important. And we’re not stuck in the ideology of the NDP, Mr. Speaker. We take our direction from the people of Saskatchewan who had the privilege of putting us in here, Mr. Speaker, certainly not from Justin Trudeau.”

Opposition Health critic Vicki Mowat then stood and accused Minister Merriman of “utter nonsense.”

“The Sask Party government is breaking the Canada Health Act. They knew this was going to happen… Will the minister admit that this tired and out-of-touch Sask Party government’s choices are breaking the law and that they’re the ones who are to blame for this clawback of federal funding?”

“Mr. Speaker, they act like we’re the only ones in Canada doing this. The NDP government in BC is doing this,” Merriman replied. “The province of Quebec is doing this. The province of Ontario is doing this. The province of Alberta is doing this.”

“Again, Mr. Speaker, there have been two elections, two elections for the people of Saskatchewan to stand up and ask about this. And they have spoken. They have put us back into government based on the policies in our health care system, Mr. Speaker, to be able to do exactly what we are doing.”

Mowat pressed on with her criticism of MRI wait times.

“How much worse do the wait times need to get before this tired and out-of-touch Sask Party government will scrap their failed experiment?”

Merriman responded that the private two-for-one MRI system “started under the NDP government. This was done for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, done for Workers’ Compensation. It seemed to be fine when they were in government, Mr. Speaker.”

“What I’ll ask the member opposite is, is she going to stand on her feet today and ask for the cancellation, since 2016, of 30,000 scans that we’ve been able to do in this province, Mr. Speaker? Are they going to stand up and say we should cancel all of these scans?”

Later, Merriman accused Opposition Leader Beck of having campaigned for the NDP leadership on a pledge to cancel private surgeries.

“Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition knows exactly well that she campaigned on cancelling all of the private surgeries, Mr. Speaker. If she doesn’t, then I’d like her to stand up and correct the record. Because we’re going to advance as many dollars as we can into the publicly funded system to deliver those scans or those surgeries either in a private clinic or in our hospital systems.”


Mowat accuses government of “bullheadedly doubling down”

In speaking to reporters after Question Period, Mowat did not let up on her criticism of the private MRI regime, pointing to wait times steadily tracking upward.

“It’s a failed experiment,” said Mowat. “It’s time to scrap that experiment and to look at what other solutions we can and should be taking to make sure that people have access to the diagnostics they need when they need them.”

When asked about the government seemingly committed to keeping the two for one system, Mowat called it “bull-headedly doubling down on a system that doesn’t work, it makes absolutely no sense.”

She pointed to BC, which bought out the private MRI system there and worked around the clock to expand the public system in an effort to get wait times down. 

“When you’re digging a hole, you don’t just keep digging. You have to look around, re-evaluate the situation and say how are we going to get people access to the scans they need.”

Not only did Merriman indicate he was not going to back down, he confirmed to reporters the province was looking at actually expanding.

“We’ve already procured an extra 3,000 scans alone to help deal with the backlog of scans and surgeries, primarily due to the pandemic when we had to slow things down,” said Merriman. 

“But we’re going full steam ahead with this. We think it’s a great benefit to the people of Saskatchewan like I outlined in the House. Almost 30,000 scans have been done, when the patient paying for one that creates an extra one within the public system, and we’re getting that two for one… we’re very proud of it, and it’s helped out in the past and it will continue to help us.”

As for Opposition claims that the wait times were proof the private MRIs were a failure, Merriman responded that what the Opposition wasn’t taking into account is “that the province is actually growing as well. We have more people in the province during those years, so there’s going to be more scans.”