Out-of-province mammogram referrals to cost Sask. $3.5M

Kayle Neis/Regina Leader-Post. Minister of Health Everett Hindley answers questions from the press after question period at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 in Regina.

“For us, the cost isn’t the issue,” said Minister of Health Everett Hindley.

Larissa Kurz, Regina Leader-Post

Minister of Health Everett Hindley says the province will be covering the $3.5 million cost for patients to travel to Alberta for breast cancer screening, to alleviate the stress of too-long wait lists.

High-risk patients will be identified and referred to a private clinic in Calgary, to receive diagnostic services like biopsies and mammograms more quickly than wait lists in Saskatchewan are currently moving.

“For us, the cost isn’t the issue,” Hindley said when asked about the decision Thursday.

“This is a short term solution, so we’re able to cut this waitlist down to provide women with these options.”

The service contract is with Clearpoint Health Network in Calgary, the same company also taking Saskatchewan patients for hip and knee replacements as of March. That initiative, also brought in due to untenable wait times, cost $6 million to secure.

Hindley said Clearpoint was selected because “they indicated to us they had capacity” and already hold a contract with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

The agreement is for 1,000 procedures from the clinic, at a cost of $2,000 per patient, available through to March 2025.

A $1,500 travel and accommodation reimbursement will also be provided, for each patient plus one support individual to make the trip.

Typically, travel costs aren’t covered for out-of-province treatments, but Hindley said this will be an exception due to the “urgent nature of cancer.”

“Time is of the essence, and so that’s what is a bit unique about this particular circumstance,” he said.

“We don’t want travel costs to be a barrier to them getting that treatment.”

But the stop-gap measure isn’t sitting well with some who feel that “after over a decade of sounding the alarm on short-staffing, unfilled vacancies and the critical shortage of staff working in diagnostic care” the plan is inadequate.

“Health sector leaders have been calling on this government to address this crisis for years. Instead, they sat on their hands and have cooked up another out-of-province band-aid solution that will not go far enough to address the issue or help all those in need,” said Bashir Jalloh, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 5430 and a nuclear medicine technologist, in a news release issued Thursday.

“We need a comprehensive plan to add more staff, address the overall diagnostic
waitlist and mitigate the ongoing bypasses in Regina and other communities across the
province. This plan needs to include training spaces, as approximately 88 per cent of
last year’s Regina-trained technicians left the province for other opportunities.

The province says extended hours in diagnostic departments in Saskatoon are also being implemented, and the health authority is looking at expanding to offer services in Moose Jaw.

The Regina Breast Assessment Centre will be coordinating the referrals, and making contact with patients immediately.

Hindley acknowledged wait times are up to “10 weeks if not more,” with a list of 350 patients in Saskatoon.

He called them “frankly unacceptable.”

“Ideally, we don’t want to be doing this,” said Hindley. “We need to build capacity but as we know, cancer can’t wait.”

The issue was brought to his attention earlier this spring, Hindley said.

He added the ministry is looking at other mid- and long-term solutions for Saskatchewan’s system, including recruiting more specially trained radiologists to fill short-staffed departments.

Initiatives to upskill existing staff internally is also being considered, he added. Utilizing out-of-province services is meant to address the shortages in the interim.

The Saskatchewan NDP raised flags on the lengthy wait times for mammograms in question period last week. Appointment bookings are backlogged into the new year, said critic for health Vicki Mowatt, and as far as June 2024 in some regions.

Mammogram volumes in 2022 are lagging from five years prior, with 10,000 fewer procedures done than in 2017, according to the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency.

Earlier Wednesday, a group of Regina diagnostic technologists attended the legislature to warn critical staffing shortages are about to leave the CT department at Regina Pasqua Hospital on bypass.

The delegation called for immediate bumps to compensation, as Saskatchewan wages are hindering recruitment and retention.

Hindley said the ministry is always looking at wages in order to be “competitive” with other parts of the country.