Saskatoon

Sask.'s use of private health-care resources, lack of new measures 'rather baffling': policy expert

Saskatchewan's plan to tap private health-care resources amid the fourth wave of COVID-19 — paired with the absence of additional measures to stem the tide of infected patients filling hospitals — is drawing some criticism. 

'I think the government has clearly lost the plot here,' says Steven Lewis

The Saskatchewan government is spending roughly $2 million on approximately 8,500 MRI and CT scans from private providers, plus providing an additional 2,300 scans in smaller hospitals, to help offset service reductions sparked by the fourth wave of COVID-19. (CBC)

Saskatchewan's plan to tap private health-care resources amid the fourth wave of COVID-19 — paired with the absence of additional measures to stem the tide of infected patients filling hospitals — is drawing criticism. 

"I think the government has clearly lost the plot here," said Steven Lewis, a health policy consultant formerly based in Saskatchewan.

"It has pretty much declared that it will not do what more successful jurisdictions do to contain the pandemic."

The province's vaccination rate will not rise substantially without firmer policy backing, Lewis said, noting the government has adamantly stressed freedom of choice.

"At the same time, the government is very disinclined to put in place perhaps offsetting measures."

Health policy consultant Steven Lewis says the province's plan to hire more contact tracing workers is 'like you've left the barn door be open for a week, and a few hundred cows have wandered all over the place, and now you're going to hire a whole bunch of people to try to find out where they are.' (CBC)

Last Friday, the provincial government and the Saskatchewan Health Authority announced a number of steps in order to expand "surge capacity" in COVID-19 hot spots, including slowing down health services such as elective surgeries.

The plans also include spending an estimated $2 million on approximately 8,500 MRI and CT scans from private providers, plus providing an additional 2,300 scans in smaller hospitals.

The decision to put money toward more scans is "rather baffling," Lewis said, because "you'll end up with more people made anxious by a diagnosis with no prospect of a fairly swift service."

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili also said it's "very strange that the government is coming up with no other measures" to address the rising COVID-19 case numbers.

"The one thing they would announce are measures to increase private, for-profit care within our system," he said during a Wednesday news conference.

"Choosing this moment, taking advantage of a crisis to try to privatize our health-care system, [is] the wrong approach. We should be seeing added resources to address wait times in imaging and surgery."

Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili speaks during a news conference in front of a Saskatchewan Health Authority office in Saskatoon on Wednesday. He accused the Saskatchewan Party government of 'taking advantage of a crisis to try to privatize our health-care system.' (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

As of Wednesday, there were 224 COVID-19 patients in hospital in Saskatchewan, including 40 people in intensive care. The day before, there were 43 people in ICU — the highest number since April 26. 

The Ministry of Health said it and the health authority will recruit private workers to help with contact tracing — a workforce that declined by two-thirds as the province's fourth wave began. 

"It's like you've left the barn door be open for a week, and a few hundred cows have wandered all over the place," said Lewis. "And now you're going to hire a whole bunch of people to try to find out where they are."

The ministry also said it and the health authority are moving to expand COVID-19 testing capacity "through existing third-party contracted testing service providers and by procuring additional publicly funded testing resources."

Those who test positive for the illness will once again be required to isolate, after a month and a half during which that requirement was dropped, the ministry also announced. 

But health-care leaders and unions have called on the government to do more on the front end of the pandemic — including introducing a provincially enforced proof-of-vaccination program instead of just supporting the patchwork of programs currently in effect at businesses.

"They could implement masking again," said Sandra Seitz, the president of CUPE Local 5430, a union representing about 14,000 Saskatchewan health-care workers. 

"They're not moving in that direction. They'd rather throw the burden of the pandemic on the health-care workers of this province." 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority is working on a policy that would require all of its employees to show proof of vaccination or else submit to regular COVID-19 testing. But details about the plan — including what would happen if a worker declined to be tested — remain unclear two weeks after the plan was initially announced by Premier Scott Moe. 

"The vaccination policy is still being worked on, but not yet approved," a spokesperson for the SHA said Tuesday. 

Meili called on the province Wednesday to more aggressively encourage partially vaccinated people to get their second doses by having qualified experts phone them and educate them on the benefits of being fully vaccinated.

Also on Wednesday, the SHA confirmed it is using contract nursing workers in some intensive care units and emergency rooms and training registered nurses in a critical care course through a partnership with Saskatchewan Polytechnic. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

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