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GLOBAL NEWS COLUMN: Hey voters, do not fear the Saskatchewan MRI

Saskatchewan was recently thrust into the national spotlight as Prime Minister Trudeau threatened to reduce funding to the prairie province over its private MRI policy.

What’s the problem? Why should Canadians care? Why does our nation desperately need a serious debate on health reform? Here are a few facts that voters might find of interest.

To begin, private MRI clinics have operated in Canada since the first one opened in Alberta in 1994. Despite critics claiming the sky would fall once these clinics opened, their dire predictions have yet to come to true.

Many of these clinics operate no differently than private labs in Canada. Just as your doctor may send you to a private lab for blood work, sometimes patients are sent to private MRI clinics for a scan. In both cases, the government still picks up the tab for the service.

Other times patients may decide to pay for a private MRI scan at one of these clinics instead of waiting several months (in some cases more than a year) for the government to provide the scan. Each time this happens, one less patient is removed from a government waiting list, shortening the waiting period for everyone else.

Presently, six provinces have private MRI clinics that sell scans to the public, including the Prime Minister’s home province of Quebec. Why the Prime Minister only threatened Saskatchewan with a funding cut is not clear.

If anything, progressive politicians such as Prime Minister Trudeau should like a unique feature of the Saskatchewan government’s MRI policy: private clinics are required to provide a free scan to someone waiting in the public system every time the clinic sells a scan to patients.

Since 2016, more than 10,000 patients waiting in Saskatchewan’s public system have received free scans from these private MRI clinics. Another 10,000 patients received paid scans. Ultimately this means the public system did not have to pay for these scans or add those patients to its already long waiting lists.

Are we to assume the Prime Minister would have preferred those 20,000 patients be added to government waiting lists? Would you want thousands of additional patients in front of your spot in line?

The Prime Minister’s criticism of Saskatchewan’s policy can likely be chalked up to politics. Progressives have a long history of health scare – fear mongering that their opponents would eliminating public health care all together. In reality, in each of the six provinces that have private MRI clinics, government spending on public health care has never been higher.

The problem is throwing money at the system doesn’t work. Our system has been in trouble for years despite massive increases in spending.

Prior to COVID-19, health care waiting lists had never been longer. During the pandemic, governments postponed thousands of surgeries, diagnostic scans and other medical appointments. Those waiting lists are now even longer.

To make matters worse, pressure on our system will increase substantially in the years ahead as our aging population takes its toll – the oldest of the enormous baby boomer generation starts to hit the magic age of 75 this year. Government data shows the average 75-year-old patient costs the health care system more than three times as much as the average 50-year-old patient.

Compared with other countries, our system is underperforming.

A new study by the progressive Commonwealth Fund evaluated the performance of health care systems in eleven developed nations. Canada ranked tenth. Commonwealth Fund research has also shown that of those eleven countries, Canada has the longest waiting periods to see a specialist and to receive elective surgery. 

Their research also found Canada actually spent more than most of the countries that outperformed our nation. 

One thing countries with better performing universal health care systems do differently is they allow patients to choose between using the public health care system and non-government providers (non-profit or for-profit clinics). This not only provides patients with more choices, non-government providers take pressure off of the public system.

To be sure, we have a lot of good, talented people who are stuck in a system that is both underperforming and unsustainable. Allowing more provide clinics to open up and provide more services to the public won’t solve all our problems, but it is a step in the right direction – just as we have seen in Saskatchewan.

Colin Craig is the President of SecondStreet.org, a new Canadian think-tank based in Calgary.

This column was published by Global News on August 26, 2021.

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