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Island Health paying $1 million to private clinics to cut MRI wait-lists

Island Health is paying two private clinics almost $1 million to perform 1,800 MRI scans as part of a provincial initiative to reduce wait-lists over the first three months of this year.

Island Health is paying two private clinics almost $1 million to perform 1,800 MRI scans as part of a provincial initiative to reduce wait-lists over the first three months of this year.

The health authority will pay private clinics almost twice the per-scan price it incurs to perform the same tests, in order to fulfill the province’s goal of reducing the backlog for MRIs as soon as possible.

Two private clinics, Vancouver Island MRI, in Comox, and Nanaimo MRI, are to perform 1,800 diagnostic tests — at $550 per scan, for a total of $990,000 — between January and March.

The comparable cost for Island Health to perform the diagnostic tests is about $300 per scan. However, that price does not include overhead costs, said Island Health spokeswoman Suzanne Germain.

As of Jan. 28, there were 11,252 people waiting for an MRI on Vancouver Island. The median wait was 238 days — about eight months.

Both B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake and Premier Christy Clark have acknowledged people are waiting too long for the medical scans, which are used to examine everything from brain tumours to joint problems.

In November, the province unveiled a four-year plan to boost the number of annual MRIs by 65,000 at a cost of up to $20 million by year four. Island Health will receive $3.8 million by year four. The health authority projects it will perform 41,730 MRI scans a year by 2019.

Each health authority was given additional funding to reduce wait-lists for MRI tests but the province left it to individual health authorities to decide how to best achieve that.

In January, Island Health embarked on a plan to perform 3,160 more MRI scans over the next three months.

The health authority’s multi-prong plan to reduce wait-lists relies on increasing operating hours of MRI machines and adding more radiologists, nurses and technicians to perform the scans.

Lake said the use of private clinics by Island Health is an interim step to reduce those wait-lists now.

“Island Health is looking to the private sector, which has the people and equipment in place so we can make a difference right away,” Lake said in a phone interview.

The B.C. NDP has criticized Island Health’s parallel plan to contract private clinics to perform more than half of the publicly funded MRIs needed to reduce wait-lists.

NDP health critic Judy Darcy said wait-lists are sure to creep back up if the province keeps pouring one-time funding into private health care — money needed to repair an ailing public health care system.

“It’s crisis management, not long-term planning,” Darcy said, adding that with contracts of this type, private clinics will be bolstered to hold the province “hostage” in terms of pricing.

Germain said the hiring of MRI technicians is going well and the health authority expects to have substantially expanded its capacity by the time the temporary private contract expires.

“Island Health carefully considered whether this contract was the right thing to do,” she said, “and we decided it was in the best interest of the patients on our MRI wait-lists to expedite MRI scans while we continue to build internal capacity through recruitment and expanded hours.”

The diagnostic scans performed by private clinics are done to the same standard of those within Island Health, Germain said.

“And they are read by the same radiologists who work in the hospital system,” she said. “The patient is not paying for these scans, the only difference is the location.”

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