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Province puts out call to surgeons, clinics to clear 5,500-case backlog

Critics say plan puts public system at risk

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Asking for private clinics to help reduce a backlog of elective surgeries is putting Manitoba's public health-care system at risk, critics warn, accusing the provincial government of using COVID-19 as cover.

The province should be restoring the public system's capacity, the Manitoba Nurses Union said Thursday.

How far behind on elective surgeries and diagnostic testing is Manitoba?

To get an idea of the impact of the shutdown, compare April 2020 to April 2019:

• Cataracts volume, down 98 per cent

• Hip replacement volume, down 83 per cent

• Knee replacement volume, down 99 per cent

To get an idea of the impact of the shutdown, compare April 2020 to April 2019:

• Cataracts volume, down 98 per cent

• Hip replacement volume, down 83 per cent

• Knee replacement volume, down 99 per cent

• Cardiac surgery down 52 per cent

• MRI scans down 60 per cent

• CT scans down 34 per cent

• Myocardial perfusion (heart test) down 66 per cent

• Ultrasound scans down 53 per cent

Source: Manitoba Health

"We have the ability in the public system to ramp up surgeries so it's safe, provided in a way that is monitored and accessible," president Darlene Jackson said.

The province is following the "privatization playbook," where services are cut and underfunded to the point where governments can claim that the private sector is the only way to get out of the mess.

"To use the pandemic as cover for this privatization creep was unfortunately predictable and in no way was necessary, had government paid any attention whatsoever to the people who work in the health system," said Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the provincial government cut 55 surgical beds along with close to 12 per cent of nursing positions in surgery in the city over the past four years while cutting capacity in other parts of the province, Jackson said.

On Thursday, Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced a request for proposals by July 13 to provide same-day, low-risk surgeries to clear approximately 5,500 procedures that have piled up since the province's first COVID-19 case was detected March 12.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced a request for proposals for private surgeons, independent clinics and public health-care providers to complete a backlog of elective surgeries. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced a request for proposals for private surgeons, independent clinics and public health-care providers to complete a backlog of elective surgeries. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Elective surgeries were postponed as hospitals ramped up for a possible influx of COVID-19 cases. That didn't happen, and surgeries resumed in late April. The initial backlog was 7,000 procedures, but as of June 10, it had been reduced to about 5,500.

COVID-19 infection-control measures mean fewer surgeries can be completed in a given time.

"We're looking for innovative solutions to ensure Manitobans get the surgeries they need as quickly and efficiently as possible," Friesen told a news conference.

The usual summer slowdown has reduced the number of half-day surgical slates by 632 from June 29 to Sept. 4, a health source familiar with the situation said.

"We're looking for innovative solutions to ensure Manitobans get the surgeries they need as quickly and efficiently as possible." — Health Minister Cameron Friesen

"I'm not sure the summer slowdown is the way to go this year," said Jackson.

Friesen said the RFP is "invitational" for both public and private facilities. It asks for details on how the applicant will be able to address priority surgical and diagnostic areas "by creating additional capacity in the system." The priorities include pediatric dental surgeries, pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeries, minor orthopedic procedures, ophthalmology surgery, outpatient spine procedures and outpatient urology surgeries.

There is a sense of urgency to clear the decks now, while virus numbers here are low, because there could be a second wave of COVID.

"We don't know what the fall will hold, we don't know what the winter will hold," he said. "We believe there is a window to act now."

Friesen said he had not consulted with health-care unions about the plan but thought they would be on board.

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, says the province should be restoring the public system's capacity. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, says the province should be restoring the public system's capacity. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"We continue to speak with labour on broad issues," he said. "We believe labour wants what we want: better, more speedy access."

But not if it means shifting resources away from the public health care system to for-profit entities, union leaders and others say.

Using private sector providers to get caught up won't benefit all Manitobans in the long run, said Jackson.

And the "infiltration" of for-profit providers into the public health-care system will end up costing more and will result in Manitobans facing longer wait times, said Manitoba Health Coalition director Brianne Goertzen, pointing to examples in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

"We've seen this government invest dollars into private entities and not invest those dollars and resources into enhancing our public health system," said said NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara. "And it has really left public health-care providers without the adequate resources and support needed to deliver services."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province should stop rationing care and spend money in the public system.

Friesen bristled when asked if his government was using a health crisis to justify contracting out more work to private, for-profit clinics pointing out that the government already works with several providers outside the public system to provide various surgical and diagnostic procedures.

Health care services sought by the RFP are still being paid for by the public, will follow Canada Health Act and provincial regulations, he said.

Manitoba's request for proposals is for procedures to be provided Aug.1 to March 31, 2021 "with one additional one-year term extension available."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
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Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.

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Updated on Thursday, July 2, 2020 at 7:08 PM CDT: adds opposition voices, new headline, adds factbox, additional formatting

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