By Rob South
Friends of Medicare declared July 25 that a shortage of public magnetic resonance imaging machines is forcing many Albertans to pay for private MRIs.
"The central problem is line jumping," said FOM’s Calgary Chapter Chair Judy Johnson. "When a citizen purchases a private MRI, it means they can use their diagnostic results to get treatment in the public system while the rest of the public is still waiting for testing."
Alberta Health and Wellness does not believe there is a major problem with public access to MRIs. Public MRIs are made available at no cost to the public by regional health authorities, which receive funding from Health and Wellness.
"If an MRI is medically necessary there is no queue jumping," said Health and Wellness spokesperson Chris Dawson. "If a patient is critical their access is almost immediate."
According to Dawson, there are three levels of assessment for public MRIs: critical, urgent and non-urgent. Critical patient access is almost immediate, urgent patients get an MRI within three to four days and non-urgent patients may have to wait up to six months.
"Six months is a long time to wait," said Marie Williams, an Albertan whose case was presented to the public by FOM. "You can die while waiting for that MRI."
Williams was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, after a nine-month wait for a public MRI. She then had to wait three months for treatment at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. After the cancer was in remission, Williams started to experience headaches and decided to pay $1,025 for a private MRI. She waited two days for the private MRI and received the results the day after–the tests for cancer were negative.
"It’s wonderful to know the results right away," said Williams.
According to Dawson, the length of time to wait for a public MRI is decreasing because the provincial government funded the purchase of several new MRI machines this year. Dawson said no MRIs, public or private, are available without a doctor’s referral. Additionally, Health and Wellness is looking into FOM’s claims about faster treatment for those who get private MRIs.
"If a person chooses to get a private MRI and as a result gets faster treatment, that is a concern and we are reviewing those circumstances," said Dawson. "It is up to the physician in consultation with the patient to determine the need for an MRI."
FOM is hoping federal Health Minister Allan Rock will take action to put an end to private MRI clinics. In April, Rock said he would "take action" if FOM could prove patients were being charged for medically necessary services.
"That’s why we held the press conference, to let the public know we had responded to Rock’s challenge," said Johnson. "I don’t know why [Rock] hasn’t taken action some time ago because the Alberta government has been in violation of the Canada Health Act for sometime."
Rock’s office did not respond to any of the Gauntlet’s requests for an interview.