The Quebec government is poised to start paying for radiology exams performed in free-standing, privately owned clinics — beginning with ultrasound imaging later this spring.

Health Minister Réjean Hébert said his ministry is working out the details now, although he could not elaborate on how much the first step — paying for private ultrasounds — would cost the cash-strapped government.

Asking patients to pay unacceptable: QMA

Hébert was responding Wednesday to a call by the Quebec Medical Association to pay for all diagnostic imagery, regardless of whether it is performed in hospital or in a private clinic.

"Going to the patient and saying, 'Do you think you could pay?' I mean, it's awful.  It's against everything that I've been taught and everything I do," said QMA president Ruth Vander Stelt.

Under the previous Liberal government, privately owned and operated radiology clinics flourished, although Quebec's health insurance board, la Régie de l'assurance maladie du Québec (RAMQ,) only covers the cost of regular x-rays conducted in private clinics.

RAMQ does not cover magnetic resonance imagery, or MRIs, computer axial tomography (CT or CAT scans) or ultrasound imagery, unless those exams are conducted in hospital.

"I think this decision opened the door to the privatization of the health care system, and our objective is to close those doors in order to improve access to [everyone] in Quebec to free imagery techniques," said Hébert.

"Our objective is to improve the access of patients in Quebec to imagery, specialized x-rays and echography," he said, adding the first step will be to cover the cost of ultrasounds.

However, he was vague on the details of how quickly the government will be able to roll out its plan.

"We will be in a position to make an announcement [within the coming] months about this specific issue," Hébert said.

Hospital waits long, stressful

Vander Stelt estimates the cost of covering private medical imaging at $100 million annually.

However, she said it would be money well spent.

The wait for a hospital radiology exam can be a long one, depending on the procedure and the urgency of the problem.

Gabriel Dornier, who has been experiencing facial pain, said he was told the wait to get an MRI in hospital would be about four months.

"I mean waiting four months for something that's probably major, and you don't know what it is — it's a scary situation," Dornier said.

Ultimately, he went the private route, with some financial help from his parents.

Free exams won't reduce wait times, radiologists say

The president of the Quebec Association of Radiologists, however, is not convinced free scans will reduce wait times for specialized diagnostic imaging.

"You're just changing the person who is paying for the exam," said Frédéric Desjardins. "You do not produce any more exams."

Desjardins says a better use of public funds would be to hire and train more specialized medical technologists to help radiologists.

He says that would allow radiologists to perform up to 40 per cent more scans every year, which would take a bigger bite out of wait times.