Waiting for answers on waiting for surgeries, tests

Health Minister Audrey Gordon continued her great disappearing act Tuesday. She does it a lot, especially when facing tough questions about problems in health care.

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Opinion

Health Minister Audrey Gordon continued her great disappearing act Tuesday. She does it a lot, especially when facing tough questions about problems in health care.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information released new data that shows Manitoba has among the longest wait times for key surgeries and diagnostic tests. Yet, Gordon was “unavailable” to answer questions following question period at the legislature, even though she was in the building.

There was a time in provincial politics when cabinet ministers were expected to face reporters in person on important matters.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon and the premier didn't directly answer questions about the CIHI data when asked about it Tuesday. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In the 1990s, Tory premier Gary Filmon was known for demanding his ministers show their faces and answer questions on tough issues. He wouldn’t let them hide.

In the 2000s, NDP premier Gary Doer did much the same — although the habit of responding to media requests with emails from political staff began to creep in under his watch. That trend grew under his successor, NDP premier Greg Selinger; it got worse under Tory premier Brian Pallister.

It’s now commonplace under the current government led by Tory Premier Heather Stefanson. Email responses from political staff or no response at all (including a refusal by ministers to provide in-person interviews) is now the norm.

Gordon is one of the worst offenders. She ducks the media on a regular basis.

Whether that’s her doing or a strategic move by political staff to minimize her exposure (or a combination of both) is unknown. Gordon doesn’t do well in front of the microphone. She has landed in hot water more than once with nonsensical and bizarre responses to serious questions.

It would be no surprise if staff were instructed to keep her away from media as much as possible, especially on sensitive issue such as soaring surgical and diagnostic wait times.

The province has some of the longest wait times in the country for cataract and knee surgery, MRIs and CT scans. The numbers got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, but were already growing prior to 2020. Some have been growing since at least 2008.

Cataract surgery is among the worst: the 90th percentile wait time has nearly doubled since the Progressive Conservative government took office in 2016. The longest wait time for nine out of 10 patients was 516 days in 2021, up from 289 in 2016. That wait time grew from 151 days in 2008.

Wait times published by government can be misleading. For example, Manitoba reports the median wait time for cataract surgery was 16 weeks in March at Misericordia Health Centre. But that’s a blend of how long it takes to get the first eye done (usually the longer wait) and how long it takes for the second (usually shorter). It takes far longer than 16 weeks to get both eyes done.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon doesn't always do well in front of a microphone. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

Cataract surgery information obtained from Dr. Jennifer Rahman, an ophthalmologist who performs eye surgery at Misericordia, shows the wait time for the first eye in March at the Winnipeg hub was 32 weeks, and 12 weeks for the second eye. She said Misericordia could perform more cataract surgeries and start clearing the backlog (now more than 9,000 patients) if government committed the resources to it.

These are questions that could have been put to Gordon — but she wasn’t available to answer them.

The minister also wasn’t available to answer questions about why only 38 per cent of knee surgeries performed last year were completed within the recommended benchmark of 26 weeks (second-worst record in Canada) or why Manitoba had the second longest wait time for an MRI last year.

Why is Manitoba doing so much worse than other provinces and what is government doing about it?

The response from the health minister? Crickets. It was easier for her to dodge the media and answer no questions at all.

The only response Gordon and the premier gave during question period Tuesday when asked by the opposition about the CIHI data was to repeat that Budget 2022 allocates $110 million to reduce the diagnostic and surgical backlogs.

There are few concrete plans on how that money will be spent or how it may reduce wait times, other than a plan to increase orthopedic surgical slates at Concordia Hospital at the end of the year. There are still no targets on wait times and no date on when surgical backlogs will be cleared.

No wonder the minister avoids the media.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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