New Sask. government plan for getting through surgery backlog concerns experts, unions

Saskatchewan's plan to reduce its surgery backlog by privatizing certain procedures is raising concerns from unions, the Opposition and health policy experts. 

Around 35,000 surgeries are on hold right now in Saskatchewan

Thousands of surgeries have been delayed in Saskatchewan since the onset of the pandemic. (CBC)

Saskatchewan's newly announced approach to make its way through 35,000 backlogged surgeries is garnering concern from unions, the Opposition and health policy experts. 

The government says it plans on privatizing certain procedures and paying for them with public funds. It's not known which surgeries will be privatized.

According to Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman, emphasis will first be put on surgeries with the highest number of patients waiting for them. 

The government said its goal is to achieve a three-month wait time by 2030. It has set a target beyond its pre-pandemic levels, planning to perform a total of 18,000 more surgeries over the next four years. The emphasis will be on operations with the highest wait-lists.

Details on the cost of the project were not available, as Merriman said it's in the "budget process" right now.

Many concerns raised by policy analysts and the NDP surrounding the plan have to do with the number of health-care workers there are to go around. The government was vague on plans to recruit and retain workers who are sorely needed in the province. 

Dennis Kendel, health policy consultant and physician, wondered where the workers would come from. 

"There isn't anybody sitting around on the sidelines not working at the moment. All of the people in these roles are working and very, very hard, in hospitals," he said in an interview. 

"If you're recruiting people from the hospital market to try to convince them to work at a private facility, then you simply reduce capacity in the hospitals. There's a fixed supply of health-care professionals."

Some scans and tests have been privatized in the province, and Kendel said he doesn't want to see people being able to pay their way to the front of the line for surgery. 

Ryan Meili, the leader of Saskatchewan's NDP, said the goals are unattainable without a solid plan. 

"Nurses and doctors and folks on the front line are under incredible amounts of pressure. We need to see a real plan with training, with incentives, with recruitment and retention plans to get people in the door doing this work," he told reporters Thursday.

Steven Lewis, health policy analyst, said the ideal solution is to maximize what can be done in the public sector and when the limit is hit, "the government should tell us why there are limits and why it's a better option to go private."

Lewis said the goals are ambitious and that it's incredibly hard to ramp up capacity for things like post-operative care, for example, all at once. 

New investment or old money?

Barbara Cape, SEIU-West president, said this problem began long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the announcement was more of an idea than a plan at this point.

"I think everybody would like to be a part of developing a plan to address the surgical backlog," Cape said.

One of Cape's main concerns was if it will be new money poured into the system or a reallocation of existing health-care money. She echoed concerns of an already strained system and not enough staff to go around.

And if the government wants to increase surgical capacity, it also has to increase every other service that goes along with that, like physical therapy and home care, she said. 

"We really need to focus new investment in the whole public health-care system," she said. 

Cape said this move did worry her in terms of more privatization of the health-care system. 

"If we rob valuable public dollars out of the public health-care system and put them into the private system, we are simply prolonging the decline of a public health-care system that we all really pay taxes for," she said. 

"It's not the beginning. It's the continuation of a very sad and disturbing saga that we've seen."

For recruitment into hundreds of unfilled health-care jobs, and keeping those jobs filled, Cape said the province needs better wages and more full-time positions at the very least. 


Emily Pasiuk


Emily Pasiuk is a reporter for CBC Edmonton who also covers news for CBC Saskatchewan. She has filmed two documentaries. Emily reported in Saskatchewan for three years before moving to Edmonton in 2020. Tips? Ideas? Reach her at

With files from CBC's Yasmine Ghania