VANCOUVER — Private clinics offering MRI diagnostics will be allowed to bill patients directly for six more months while the provincial health care system ramps up its own MRI services.
Extra billing by doctors for medically necessary treatments is set to end Oct. 1 when the Medicare Protection Act comes into effect, with the notable exception of MRI imaging.
Private clinics can continue to bill patients for those diagnostic services until April 1, 2019, to help clear lengthy wait lists for the procedure.
But enforcement of the act will mean an end to people jumping the queue for medically necessary MRIs, said Health Minister Adrian Dix.
A Health Ministry document obtained by Postmedia News this year showed wait times as long as 364 days for MRIs and hours of operation as low as 35 hours per week at some facilities.
Because wait times were so long in B.C., people were opting to pay for MRIs themselves.
Under the Medicare Protection Act as it was being applied, that was allowed, Dix said. “It was a two-tiered system.”
The government’s MRI machines have been operating below capacity and below the national average per capita for years.
But after an $11-million infusion of cash, eight publicly funded MRI machines are now operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet a target of 225,000 MRIs in this fiscal year, an increase of 37,000 over last year.
“We have 18 more that are running 135 hours a week, or 19 hours a day,” said Dix.
MRIs are used to detect abnormalities of the brain, tumours, vascular problems and soft-tissue injuries.
“We have seen improvement [in access to MRIs] in the past few years, but there are areas where B.C. is not meeting the standard,” said Dr. Eric Cadesky, president of the British Columbia Medical Association.
“We hope with the government’s announcement, it means there will be no interruption in access to MRIs and in fact it will be improved when the situation is revisited in six months.”
Private MRI clinics will be allowed to offer non-medically necessary procedures such as full body scans for people willing to pay.
Under the new law, doctors who bill patients for care usually covered by the public insurance scheme could, if convicted, be forced to repay the patient, be fined up to $20,000, and even be removed from the Medical Services Plan, which means they could no longer work in the public system.
British Columbia had its annual transfer payment reduced by $16 million this year by the federal government for failing to crack down on extra billing, but the province can now seek to recover that money.
Health authorities will still be allowed to contract out procedures to private clinics, which already perform more than 60,000 surgeries a year.
Private clinics are scaling back their operations in anticipation of the Oct. 1 deadline, said Dr. Brian Day, who is seeking a court injunction to stop the legislation.
Stifling extra billing will lead to delays in short-stay surgeries and could lead to increased wait times throughout the system, he said.
“I have already received approaches from Washington state facilities asking that we pass their contact information on to desperate patients as a practical alternative,” he said.