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This article was published 18/4/2017 (1208 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
So now we know.
If you’re like me — and I extend my deepest sympathies if you are — you’ve wondered at times over the years how it is that pro athletes in this town could get hurt one night and the team would already know the results of an MRI the next day.
Is there some special place the Winnipeg Jets and Winnipeg Blue Bombers send their players for MRIs that the rest of us who wait interminable months for the same scan don’t know about? Do the teams have their own MRI machines? Are they sending players to the States to get the scans done so quickly?
No, it turns out that all these years the Jets and Bombers have simply been jumping the queue and getting preferential treatment in the public health-care system.
We now know this — incontrovertibly and in the kind of detail that had the front offices of both the Jets and Bombers squirming Tuesday — thanks to a glorious piece of journalism this week by Free Press reporters Kevin Rollason and Jane Gerster.
Rollason and Gerster got their hands on a confidential report from the provincial auditor that flagged 92 cases between 2008 and 2016 in which people got unusually speedy MRI scans as "instances of potential preferential treatment."
Those on the receiving end of the suspected preferential treatment included a handful of local politicians, regional health bigwigs and donors.
But the overwhelming majority of the MRI cases flagged by the auditor during that period — 59 of 92 — involved Jets and Bombers.
The Jets made up almost half of the flagged cases — 44 of 92 — while the Bombers accounted for another 15 queue-jumpers.
When you consider these Jets didn't exist until 2011 — even though the period under review goes back to 2008— what becomes clear is that the quickest and easiest path to a quick MRI in this town has nothing to do with medical need and everything to do with being a member of the tiny cadre of coddled millionaires that is this city’s local NHL franchise.
The fact the Jets racked up almost triple the number of queue-jumpers as the Bombers — and did it in three fewer years — also tells you all you need to know about the pecking order of sports teams in this town, but that’s a column for another day.
Now, I suppose you could argue only the hopelessly naive or terminally idiotic would regard as revelatory the news that pro athletes get the same coddled treatment from the health-care system as they get everywhere else in their rarefied lives.
The world is full of sycophants and the news that local doctors and hospital administrators are apparently just as awed by reflected glory as, for example, at least half the media in this town is not exactly the Pentagon Papers now, is it?
But it’s one thing for the local broadcast rights-holders to give the teams they’re partnered with a free ride in the media and quite another for a doctor whose salary we’re all paying to bump his favourite player to the top of the list for an MRI scan which, as it happens, we’re also all paying for.
One thing is annoying but predictable, the other is simply outrageous. And that’s why heads rolled in Alberta back in 2009 when it emerged publicly that the Calgary Flames players and their families all received the H1N1 vaccine at a special clinic, even as schoolchildren in the province were being told they had to wait because there wasn’t yet enough vaccine to go around.
That was scandalous then and, in part, spawned a provincial public inquiry. This is unacceptable now, and should spark an investigation here.
Maybe I’m naive — I concede the terminally idiotic part — but I like to think that there is still value in Tommy Douglas’s idea that the bedrock and inviolable principle that should underlie this country’s national health-care system is that your treatment is, at all times, dictated by medical need, not your fame or celebrity or ability to rip a one-timer from the top of the faceoff circle.
And, for what it’s worth, the Canada Health Act (1984) happens to agree with me and Tommy, making it crystal clear that a condition of the federal government’s annual transfer of huge health-care dollars to the provinces is that the provinces not allow precisely the kind of two-tier medicine the auditor appears to be describing in his report.
Look, I get the presence of the Jets and Bombers in this town generally brightens the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and, more broadly, serves roughly the same useful purpose to our society as gladiators did for the rulers of Rome: the mob is not storming the gates with pitchforks and torches if the mob is otherwise occupied with wondering why the Jets penalty kill is so lousy.
All of which is to say I think you can make a case that there is a broader public good benefiting us all that is served by a top-line forward bumping your grandma on the MRI list and getting a speedy diagnosis of that shoulder injury he suffered in a 6-4 loss to Carolina last night.
But then, let’s have that public debate, consider the merits of both sides and then decide as a society whether we want to maintain our single-tier system, but also add an extra little on-ramp for our pro athletes.
Or maybe we would conclude the opposite and demand that going forward, no one gets special treatment ever, and if the Jets and Bombers players need expedited treatment they can drive down to North Dakota and pay for it at a private clinic — just like hundreds and maybe even thousands of ordinary Manitobans do every year.
Plus, a half-hour wait in an idling car at the border in Emerson would do Dustin Byfuglien some benefit after all these years of chartered planes and five-star hotels. He could see how the rest of us who pay his $7.6-million annual salary still live.
Or the Jets and Bombers could, I suppose, buy their own MRI unit, for that matter. The internet tells me "a state-of-the-art 3 Tesla MRI machine" currently goes for $3 million brand new. Used ones fetch $150,000 to $1.2 million on the secondary market — chump change for a Jets team that paid Mark Stuart more than that this year.
Now, I have no idea if that’s workable and, frankly, I don’t care. But however it works going forward, what would be unconscionable is the continuation of the status quo, where we pretend one thing while quietly acquiescing with a nod and a wink that a health-care system built on the principle of equality for all is just a bit more equal for some than for others.
All of which is precisely what the Jets and Bombers are hoping we do, of course. The teams issued terse "no comments" to Rollason and Gerster, citing medical-privacy concerns.
So, a couple of things. First, the only thing the Jets and Bombers want to keep private is the fact their players have been quietly jumping the health-care queue for years.
Second, no one at this newspaper was ever going to ask the Jets or the Bombers about the details of what the expedited MRIs of Byfuglien or Drew Willy (examples from the auditor’s report) showed way back when; we simply wanted to know what makes the Jets and Bombers so special that their players should be allowed to cut in front of 21,323 of their fans (the MRI wait list as of last June).
And third, the whole idea that pro athletes have any entitlement to medical privacy when we are all paying their salaries in the form of tickets and the teams are being subsidized to a greater (Bombers) or lesser (Jets) extent by taxpayer dollars is, in itself, bogus.
You want your shoulder problem kept private? Get a real job and nobody will care.
Look, maybe some of these athletes flagged by the auditor got quick MRIs simply because they had an emergent medical need. The system in this province builds breathing room into waiting lists to deal with emergencies and it’s possible, I suppose, that if I hurt my shoulder playing touch football on the boulevard last night I’d have gotten the same quick scan that Willy got.
But the auditor obviously suspects otherwise or he wouldn’t have flagged all these cases involving local pro athletes in an explosive report that is going to resonate loudly and for a long time now that it’s become public.
Me? The idea that Drew Willy got his MRI in a jiffy simply because the Bombers couldn’t provide him with a competent offensive line makes me sick to my stomach.
Or maybe that’s just a gastrointestinal issue I’m having; who knows? An MRI could tell me for sure, I suppose — only it would take 24-27 weeks, the current average wait time.
If only I were a faster skater.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
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