Montreal's Health and Social Services Agency is clarifying a controversial policy requiring doctors to inform off-island patients about treatments available closer to their homes.

'Every patient has the right to choose his physician and his hospital'-  Frédéric Abergel, Montreal's Health & Social Services Agency

The agency says the policy is just a "guideline" and that patients are free to seek treatment wherever they wish.

"By law, every patient has the right to choose his physician and his hospital  and if any patient wants to be treated in Montreal, they will be treated in Montreal," said agency spokesman Frédéric Abergel.

Montreal health agency officials say there's been a longstanding provincial policy encouraging patients to get treatment as close to home as possible.

That means doctors at Montreal hospitals should be informing patients who come from off-island regions about options closer to home.

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Barry Stein, president of the Canadian Colorectal Cancer Association, says the policy is a way for Montreal's health agency to save money. (CBC)

“Some patients, when they discover they can receive the care close to home, they do use that option," Abergel said.

Policy upsets some patients and doctors

The Canadian Colorectal Cancer Association issued a statement Tuesday condemning the policy.

'"I don’t think it's up to the government to decide who is going to take care of you,'- Thérèse Allard, cancer patient

It says most colorectal cancer patients require specialized care that is available only in Montreal.

"How do you say to a patient who is receiving specialized care, they should just go back to their region and fend for themselves, and get whatever treatment they can get in their region? It's totally unfair," said Barry Stein, president of the Canadian Colorectal Cancer Association.

Stein says the policy is a measure which the agency put in place to try to save money for Montreal hospitals.

"The agency feels that patients should be referred away, so that the hospital doesn't exceed [its] budget."

The association adds that the policy may also confuse some patients.

Colorectal cancer patient Thérèse Allard lives in Ayer's Cliff, which is about 150 kilometres southeast of Montreal.

She travels to Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital for chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She says she’s very satisfied with the service there and would not want to go elsewhere.

"I don’t think it's up to the government to decide who is going to take care of you.  To me, it's ridiculous," Allard said.

But Montreal's Health and Social Services Agency says no patient who lives off-island will ever be refused treatment at a Montreal hospital.

Officials say the agency is simply trying to help patients get the care they need as conveniently as possible.