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Backlog simmers on Tory government back burner

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For a Tory government whose re-election chances in 2023 hinge mostly on how well Manitoba’s health-care system recovers over the next 15 months, there appears to be little, if any, urgency to reduce the backlog of procedures that piled up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Opinion

For a Tory government whose re-election chances in 2023 hinge mostly on how well Manitoba’s health-care system recovers over the next 15 months, there appears to be little, if any, urgency to reduce the backlog of procedures that piled up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not all the province’s health-care woes are tied to the pandemic. Some are the direct result of a botched, pre-pandemic hospital consolidation rollout in Winnipeg, the effects of which continue to cause severe hospital overcrowding.

Still, clearing the backlog of surgical and diagnostic procedures should be job No. 1 for the Tories. You’d never know it, though.

The Stefanson government’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force provided its latest update Wednesday. Surprisingly, it announced nothing new.

It confirmed a planned expansion for hip and knee surgery at Concordia Hospital is delayed until 2023-24 (it was supposed to be in place by the end of 2022). Health Minister Audrey Gordon told a legislative committee in May the project was delayed until 2023.

The task force reannounced plans to create an online dashboard to provide Manitobans with monthly updates on wait times and surgical volumes. It’s unclear how much different that will be from existing wait time data Manitoba Health already publishes.

What we do know is it won’t include an update on backlog information.

Until now, the public has relied on monthly updates from Doctors Manitoba to provide that data. However, the advocacy organization, which represents the province’s physicians, said its June update will be its last.

That must have been music to the ears of the Stefanson government, which has not released backlog information of its own. The data provided by Doctors Manitoba was a public relations disaster; a monthly reminder to the public of how far government was falling behind.

Government won’t be replacing it with data of its own. A spokesperson for Gordon’s office confirmed the new dashboard will not include backlog information, only wait times and the number of procedures performed.

The public won’t know when, or if, the pandemic backlog has been cleared.

It also won’t know government targets for increasing surgical and diagnostic capacity (not expected to be part of the dashboard, either).

When asked Wednesday for estimates on surgical volumes for hip and knee procedures and cataract surgeries for 2022, task force chairman Dr. Peter MacDonald said they didn’t have that information. When asked a second time whether he thought they could reach hip and knee volumes achieved in 2019 (the year before the pandemic), MacDonald said they should be able to achieve or exceed that this year.

What he didn’t reveal is Manitoba has to reach well over that level this year just to meet growing demand.

A 2017 wait time task force commissioned by the Tories estimated demand for hip and knee and cataract surgeries is growing by about five per cent a year, driven largely by an expanding and aging population.

Manitoba performed 5,049 hip and knee surgeries in 2019. Hospitals would have to reach 5,845 this year just to keep up with demand. That would do nothing to reduce the backlog, which Doctors Manitoba estimates is as high as 3,131 cases.

Manitoba would have to perform well over 6,000 hip and knee surgeries this year and at least 6,500 next year to meet growing demand and to chip away at the backlog. Government has released no plans to achieve that.

MacDonald said some Manitobans who require hip and knee surgery may be shipped out of province as early as this summer for treatment, but he didn’t say how many.

The situation is similar for cataract surgeries. Doctors Manitoba estimates the backlog is as high as 2,747 procedures.

Manitoba performed 15,109 cataract surgeries in 2019. The province would have to do about 17,500 this year just to keep up with demand, without doing anything to reduce the backlog. The task force has not said how, or if, it expects to reach that capacity this year.

None of this bodes well for the Stefanson government’s re-election bid in October 2023. Strangely, they don’t seem to care that much.

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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