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Sask. doctors oppose allowing people to pay privately for MRIs

A technician operates an MRI machine at a private clinic in Calgary on Jan. 12, 2005. Saskatchewan doctors oppose a plan that will allow people to pay privately for MRIs.
A technician operates an MRI machine at a private clinic in Calgary on Jan. 12, 2005. Saskatchewan doctors oppose a plan that will allow people to pay privately for MRIs. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jeff McIntosh

REGINA – The organization representing Saskatchewan doctors says it’s concerned that the government’s decision to allow people to pay privately for MRIs is a hasty policy. A letter to physicians from the president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association says it opposes the move and told Health Minister Dustin Duncan that at the end of October.

Dr. Mark Brown says the legislation allowing people to pay privately for MRIs runs contrary to the fundamental principle of medicare.

“We really believe that a patient accessing a test should be based on a need, rather than the ability to pay. That’s the bottom line,” Brown said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.

A briefing note attached to the Dec. 4 letter says creating dual access to MRI scans does not reduce surgical wait times, and Brown suggested it could lead to queue-jumping for surgery.

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“As a specialist, if you’ve got somebody coming into the office with a private MRI that shows something, that person might then be put ahead of the rest for surgery.”

The briefing note does say that the number of patients receiving MRI service in Saskatchewan has nearly doubled since 2008-09 to about 32,000 patients. Brown said he thinks more MRIs could be done in the public system if the scans were done 24 hours a day, as they are in other provinces.

“Let’s optimize what we’ve already got before we start looking at outsourcing.”

The Saskatchewan government passed legislation last month that allows people to pay privately for MRIs.

Duncan has said the move provides additional MRI capacity at no cost to taxpayers. Private clinics will have to provide a scan to a patient on the public wait list at no charge every time an MRI is provided to someone who chooses to pay for it.

It doesn’t mean people can get an MRI whenever they want one, because they’ll still need to be referred by a doctor.

Duncan said he respects Brown and takes the association’s concerns seriously.

But the health minister noted that members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders CFL football team and the Workers’ Compensation Board have had the ability to pay for MRIs for many years. He also said family physicians in Saskatchewan already refer patients to other provinces where they can pay for an MRI.

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“If this a practice that the (association) is so philosophically opposed to … I don’t see them making moves to not allow their own members to do this already, which (Brown) acknowledged that already happens,” said Duncan.

“I don’t think it was hasty.”