Public hospitals profiting from foreign patients

WATCH ABOVE: 16×9’s “Profitable Patients”

Canadian patients cannot pay for treatment in a publicly funded hospital. That would violate Canada’s Health Act. But foreign patients can.

And it’s been happening inside hospitals at Toronto’s University Health Network – known as UHN – for more than three years.

Pierre Laplante has been a nurse for some 40 years. He was shocked back in the spring of 2012 when he started asking questions about some patients from Libya.

“I was point blank told at this stage of the game that they were bringing in revenues for the unit.”

The hospital profited from these patients. And few, if any, Canadians knew about it until Laplante went public. “I don’t feel as a nurse, as an Ontarian, as a Canadian that I was properly consulted on having these patients brought here. It’s medical tourism without Canadian knowledge.”

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WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Pierre LaPlante

The fact that patients from other countries can come and pay for treatment certainly caught Windsor optician Mike Jubenville by surprise.

He’s been a medical tourist himself. Suffering from a chronic condition called cervical dystonia, Mike told 16X9 he’s crossed the border into the United States a number of times for procedures he said he couldn’t get fast enough here in Canada.

“I did get in quick. My wait times were not months, they were days.”

Jubenville paid for those procedures. Something he couldn’t do here in a publicly funded hospital. “Of course I would want to stay in our system. I can’t pay. No. I wait. I pay and go to the States.”

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Since 2011 UHN has treated 621 foreign patients, mostly cancer and cardiac patients, from 23 different countries. Those patients generated nearly $30 million in profits.

Dr. Nizar Mahomed, the orthopedic surgeon who manages the international patient program at UHN, objects to the term medical tourism. “From our perspective the definition we’re working with is humanitarian. Providing health care to those people who don’t have access within that home jurisdiction.”

WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Dr. Nizar Mahomed

Dr. Mahomed said the money allowed the hospital to open up two new beds and an operating room. He insists no public funds were used and all the revenue went to improve treatment and reduce wait times for Ontarians.

“I think we’ve taken great care and lengths to create a process whereby we ensure that no Ontarian is bumped or disenfranchised by this activity,” said Dr. Mahomed.

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But a lawyer who specializes in health law says there’s no proof Ontario patients weren’t bumped.

“Is that really true? Or are they actually utilizing operating rooms and staff and equipment during the hours that could be going to reduce the waitlist and we don’t know the answer to that,” said Tracey Tremayne-Lloyd.

“A hospital’s not a private business. It’s not a private club and you can’t decide what you will and won’t disclose. So we should know, here’s how much you generate from these programs, these were the hours that we did…and if so when you’ve got the money where is it going? Show me in other words, show me where the money is going.”

Tremayne-Lloyd thinks medical tourism can help the bottom line and bring in cash for hospitals, but there should be accountability and disclosure – separate financial statements to demonstrate what went in and what went out.

WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Tracey Tremayne-Lloyd

A CEO report from UHN claimed that the Board of Trustees receives a report on a quarterly basis about the international activities detailing the revenues and how these revenues are spent.

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16X9 filed an FOI – a Freedom of Information request – asking for those quarterly reports that lay out the numbers. To our surprise, we were told they don’t exist.

News that foreign patients were paying for treatment in Toronto hospitals unleashed a storm of debate in the Ontario legislature. Opposition members sided with a coalition of nurses, doctors and midwives who say it threatens our universal health care system.

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Both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives have called on the government to ban medical tourism in the province.

Dr. Eric Hoskins, Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, didn’t do that. But he did send a letter to hospitals saying, “I am requesting that hospitals not market to, solicit or treat international patients with the exception of international patient activity related to a hospital’s existing international consulting contracts.”

The Liberal government wants the hospitals to cease and desist for any new contracts until the government can review and make sure no Ontario patients are displaced and no tax dollars are being used.

Medical tourism is a global business worth billions of dollars by some estimates. There are millions of patients worldwide willing to cross borders and pay for healthcare.

Critics say Canada’s publicly funded hospitals should not be competing in that marketplace.

16×9’s “Profitable Patients” airs this Saturday at 7pm.

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