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Saying no to privatizing MRI clinics in Saskatchewan

Catherine Gendron

October 31, 2014

Just a few days before Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas Day, Premier Brad Wall put forward a proposal to privatize MRI clinics. While wait times for MRI scans are certainly a pressing issue in Saskatchewan, privatizing is less efficient, more unequal, and allows corporations to be more exploitative.
Saskatchewan is known for Tommy Douglas, who helped bring about Medicare in Canada, but federal and provincial governments are moving to privatize. A few months ago Harper let the Health Accord expire, cutting up to $100 million per year from Saskatchewan’s healthcare. Provincial governments are cutting, contracting out and privatizing. Already the Sask Party government has privatized hospital laundry services and is investing more and more in public-private partnerships in areas such as long-term care facilities. Evidently, the current government is departing from Saskatchewan’s revered health care legacy.
Provincial governments are promoting privatization as a more “efficient” way to provide healthcare, but the case of Alberta shows the opposite. When the province issued private MRI clinics, evidence from the Canadian Institute for Health Information suggests that Alberta’s wait times actually went up.
Alberta now known for its title as having the longest wait times for MRI scans in Canada: despite having the second highest number of MRI scanners per capita, people in Alberta have an average wait time of more than 87 days—while Saskatchewan currently has an average wait of 28 days. What is more, Alberta is now moving in the opposite direction and investing in more public MRI clinics.
As Stan Rice, president of the Saskatchewan Health Coalition explained, “Experience in other provinces, notably Ontario and Manitoba, is that the private clinics will poach technicians, other support staff and radiologists. Studies show that this actually increased wait times, rather than reducing them… The average cost of an MRI in for-profit private clinics in Canada is in excess of $800.00. The average cost in the public system is $250.00. Once the for-profit clinic becomes established they (and their patients) will demand that the government pay for the MRI scans and the private operators will cost us more. We have seen this happen before. We are familiar in this province of this happening previously with physiotherapy services. Private physiotherapists persuaded the government that they should be paid for providing services to patients who would otherwise have received those services from the public system. We learned two lessons from this. The private sector will most certainly poach from the public system and the contracts with the private sector proved to be terribly expensive.”
Provincial health minister Dustin Duncan calls the MRI privatization proposal “an adult conversation about the ability for patients to have choice.” But the rhetoric of “choice” is aimed at undermining the principle of equality, for the benefit of the rich.
As community and labour activist, Dennel Pickering, states, “Canada's healthcare system is what we are known worldwide for. It is a model others look to and envy. It shows the world we stand together, acknowledging that everyone's life and health is valuable. Canada's health act was created with the ideology that it is accessible to everyone and provided by the public system. By allowing private, for profit companies to provide our healthcare, it erodes the whole ideology of having healthcare available to all. Private MRI clinics set a precedent that we can opt out of providing aspects of healthcare.”
As Wall himself said in 2008, “offering medical services such as an MRI for a fee seems to be outside the Canada Health Act and is an area where the government doesn’t want to tread.” But he is now going against his word. As Hailey Johnson, a young worker activist warned, “I think this is the beginning of a plan to bring healthcare more into the private sector. Conservative governments only care about saving the rich. As long as us workers keep paying what we need to so we are able to support their needs, why would they stop?”
Privatized MRI clinics could prompt a privatization domino effect on our heath care system, and allow private companies to flourish off peoples’ ill health. Having a separate means for the wealthy to have their MRI scans overrules the entire organization of health care services based on needs. Now, you can get your health care services, as long as your bank is well stocked!
Johnson also speaks to the inequity that exists in the private sector: “Privately owned businesses are able to segregate the people and take greater advantage of their employees. With privatization, it is much more difficult to form unions.” Recently the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives issued a report laying out the facts that workers earn much less in the private sector than they do in the public—even more so for women and people of colour.
Since Wall’s privatization initiative was announced just under two weeks ago, labour and community activists have come together issuing coalition letters, articles, letter-writing campaigns and more—and we are just getting started. If Premier Wall and his business allies think they can push through this healthcare privatization strategy, they’ve got another thing coming.
For more information visit the Saskatchewan Health Coalition

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