Calgary

Growing wave of Albertans pay for private surgery in U.S. as pandemic delays mount

Tim Gibson's heart sank when his orthopedic specialist in Calgary recently told him he'd be waiting years for his hip replacement due to surgery delays caused by the pandemic.

At least 45,000 procedures have been postponed in Alberta through the pandemic

Surgery delays have Albertans heading south

1 year ago
Duration 1:55
Alberta has delayed more than 45,000 surgeries because of the pandemic, creating years-long wait times for joint replacements. Now, many who can afford it are heading south of the border and paying out of pocket for surgery.

Tim Gibson's heart sank when his orthopedic specialist in Calgary recently told him he'd be waiting years for his hip replacement surgery.

"With COVID and a lot of surgeries being postponed, he said, it could be two to three years before you're ever on an operating table," Gibson recalled.

"I just said, 'I don't know how I'm going to do this' … I can't imagine going through this type of pain for two to three years and then also risk other types of complications"

Gibson decided he wouldn't wait. He booked his surgery at a private hospital in Whitefish, Mont., and paid just under $30,000 to have the procedure performed eight days ago.

Calgarian Tim Gibson paid just under $30,000 for hip replacement surgery in Montana rather than wait several years for the procedure to be done in Alberta. (Tim Gibson)

The wait time was about a month.

"I would absolutely do it again," he said.

Nearly 50,000 procedures delayed 

Paying out of pocket for private surgeries south of the border isn't a new phenomenon. But it appears more Albertans who can afford it are doing so as pandemic-related surgery delays pile up.

The province postponed all elective surgeries in September as hospitals became overwhelmed with very sick COVID-19 patients.

According to the most recent numbers released by the Alberta government, roughly 15,000 surgeries have been cancelled so far during the fourth wave, in addition to 30,000 procedure delays during the first three waves.

"They are choosing to go elsewhere because we can't provide the care. It's very distressful," said Dr. Jim Mackenzie, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hip and knee replacements at the South Health Campus in Calgary.

Dr. Jim Mackenzie, a Calgary orthopedic surgeon, says the wait to have a hip or knee replacement is now roughly four years from the time a patient is referred to a surgeon until they are on the operating table. (CBC)

His wait times have increased by at least 50 per cent since the start of the pandemic. Patients are now waiting for about four years from the time they are referred to see him until they get their surgery.

"It's creating desperation. More and more people are going elsewhere. People are paying to have private surgery in Toronto. They're paying to go to the United States. And I would say that the number of people accessing that has increased dramatically in the last year," he said.

It isn't just wealthy Albertans, according to Mackenzie.

"I know people who've gone out of the country for surgery because their livelihood depended on them getting their hip fixed," he said. "A carpenter not able to work because their hip is bad — they can't afford to wait two years and not be working. So to pay $35,000 so that they can get back to work is a reasonable way to look at it." 

Busier than ever

Just a five-hour drive south of the border in Kallispell, Mont., Mary Strauss is hearing from a lot more Alberta patients.

She's the nurse navigator for Canadian patients at Logan Health, which runs five hospitals in the area, including the Whitefish facility where Gibson had his hip replacement performed.

"With your delay because of the pandemic and everything elective being closed, patients have been told there's going to be an extended delay … and that pretty much is the driver for them to look at other options for care," said Strauss.

She estimates she's had a 50 per cent uptick in Alberta patients in the last couple of months — most of them in need of orthopedic surgery.

 "By the time patients come here, their life has already been altered because of pain."

Tim Gibson, right, meets with his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Joseph Bergman, to discuss his hip replacement. His surgery was performed in Whitefish, Mont., on Nov. 3. (Submitted by Tim Gibson)

Rick Baker, founder of Timely Medical Alternatives, a Vancouver-based company that arranges private surgeries for Canadians, is busier than he's ever been.

"We, in the last 12 months, have facilitated probably five times as many surgeries for Albertans as we would have five years ago," he said.

"We are currently working with 52 Canadians in the U.S. [and] 80 per cent of them are from Alberta."

Meanwhile, Mackenzie said this helps other patients in the public system because it does free up space on the waiting list.

But he believes there is also a big downside.

"It does nothing to help put pressure on the public system to enact change or to create momentum for some kind of policy change and improving access for everybody."

While paying thousands out of pocket for private surgery is an option for some, there are many more who will continue to wait because they simply can't afford it.

"It's a horrible way to practise," Mackenzie said.

"Having to tell them how long it's going to be for surgery — there's a lot of tears. There's a lot of anger. It's not a good place to be."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca

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