Millions of dollars set aside by the Progressive Conservative government to cut surgical and diagnostic wait times were spent on routine tests and trips to the doctor last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic backlog continued to swell.
Pent-up demand for annual physicals, doctors’ visits, and blood, urine and other diagnostic tests cost the provincial government up to $21.7 million, and was paid for using funds targeted towards reducing the surgical backlog, according to Manitoba Health.
A department spokesperson said $34.8 million of the $50 million set aside by then-premier Brian Pallister as part of Budget 2021 to reduce surgical wait times was spent on visits to general practitioners; blood, urine, X-ray, and ultrasound tests; appointments with specialists and followup tests; and other physician billings.
Included in that total was $13.1 million to pay doctors performing surgical and diagnostic procedures under contract for the province.
Eye Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba president Dr. Jennifer Rahman said doctors want to find a solution to the massive backlog — estimated to include more than 160,000 cases — and seeing a significant portion of the budget spent on the typical delivery of health care was a disappointment.
"It was presented and understood to be an injection of funding over and above what is normally paid out for doctors salaries and routine visits and testing," Rahman said Monday.
Rahman argued that money would have been better spent tackling long-standing staffing shortages to allow specialists to return to their operating rooms during pandemic waves.
"If (the Progressive Conservatives) were interested in getting the backlog done, they should have been more focused in spending money to recruit more staff and paying those staff what they deserve," she said.
"That should have been a No. 1 focus, instead of paying for extra lab tests."
Prior to revealing what would be his final budget last spring, Pallister described the $50 million as new funding that would be "major investment to address the surgical backlog."
Health Minister Audrey Gordon has since pointed to the sum as being "dedicated"or "committed" to clearing the backlog and reducing wait lists on multiple occasions.
A request for an interview with Gordon was not returned Monday. The legislative assembly did not sit, as the provincial government observes the Easter holiday.
In a statement, a spokesman for her department said last year’s budget only set aside $10 million for priority procedure wait time reduction.
The remaining $40 million was specified for health system capacity enablement, to support backlogs "across the health sector," the spokesman said, adding the province received increased physician billings arising from "pent-up" demand related to the pandemic.
According to Manitoba Health, $13.1 million was spent on delivering more than 14,000 surgeries and procedures under contract with third-party providers. Another $2.1 million was spent on diagnostic and surgical recovery task force initiatives, including spinal surgery at Sanford Health Fargo (N.D.) and colon cancer screening.
Meanwhile, expenses for other initiatives announced by the task force, including an additional operating room at Concordia Hospital and the purchase of mobile diagnostic imaging machines, will occur this year.
Last week, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced the Tory government would spend $110 million in 2022-23 to reduce the backlog.
Doctors Manitoba spokesman Keir Johnson said the association did not expect Manitoba Health to spend the full $50 million, due to disruptions during the Omicron wave. However, catching up on other types of medical care — including exams with a family doctor — would not be considered part of the backlog issue, Johnson said. Rather, routine physical exams and relayed lab tests should be accounted for in the annual health budget.
"Physicians would expect the $110 million in funding this year committed by the provincial government for the surgical and diagnostic backlog to be spent specifically on adding more surgeries and more diagnostic tests to help clear the backlog for these procedures," Johnson said.
Doctors Manitoba has been tracking the backlog since June 2021, in the absence of regular government reporting on delayed procedures and surgeries.
At the time, the backlog was estimated to include 39,000 surgical cases and 76,000 diagnostic cases.
It is now at 167,887 cases, including 54,820 surgeries and 113,067 tests.
"We suspect the full cost of addressing the massive surgical and diagnostic backlog will be much more than $110 million, but we are encouraged by the finance minister’s commitment to ‘do whatever it takes’ to fully clear the backlog," Johnson said.
University of Manitoba professor and bioethicist Arthur Schafer said the Progressive Conservatives have a significant interest in restoring public trust when it comes to delivering health care, particularly in the wake of its pandemic response and attempts at sector restructuring.
However, Schafer said misleading communication on the steps it is taking towards that end only serves to erode public confidence.
"It’s not an accident that the Pallister government as was, and the Stefanson government as is, is the least popular provincial government in the country," Schafer said.
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said cash set aside for the "extraordinary" surgical and diagnostic backlog should not have gone to the "ordinary" care delivered by physicians.
"At the myriad press conferences where this government trumpeted the $50-million figure, no reasonable person would have heard that and thought those would pay for a regular visit to a family doctor," Kinew said.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province’s accounting of its surgical and diagnostic spending came as a disappointment, but not as a surprise.
"They are not doing enough, their goals are not ambitious enough, and unless they make sure the money goes where it needs to go, and we put enough money in, we’re not going to see the changes we need," he said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.