Sask. NDP question lobbying in lead up to $6M-contract with Calgary clinic

Kayle Neis/Regina Leader-Post. Official Opposition Ethics and Democracy Critic Meara Conway on Monday, February 26, 2024 in Regina.

“The people of Saskatchewan, rightly so, have a lot of questions around what went down.”

Alec Salloum, Regina Leader-Post

A $6-million contract between the province and a private surgery clinic in Calgary was in the Opposition’s crosshairs during a contentious question period Thursday.

The NDP took aim at a $14,000-donation from Surgical Centres Inc. (a Division of Clearpoint Health Network) to the Saskatchewan Party, along with the fact that former finance minister Kevin Doherty is registered as a lobbyist for the clinic.

“The people of Saskatchewan, rightly so, have a lot of questions around what went down,” said NDP MLA Meara Conway, calling it a “sweetheart deal.”

A lobbyist must register who they are communicating with or who they intend to communicate with over a six-month period, according to The Lobbyists Act. That includes emails, letters, phone calls or in-person communications, but could also mean that a person on the list, may never have been contacted or lobbied.

Between 2022 and 2023, registration of lobbying activity forms from the Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists Saskatchewan shows nine entries where ministers and the premier were potentially lobbied “to work with the Ministry of Health to assist in the surgical backlog.”

Doherty, vice-president of Prairie Sky Strategy and one of two lobbyists listed with the firm, is noted as the lobbyist files the forms.

Minister of Health Everett Hindley is listed nine times, eight of those as the minister of rural and remote health, but it doesn’t mean that on nine occasions Doherty met with Hindley for the express intent of lobbying on behalf of the clinic.

“As the minister of health I have not met with Prairie Sky Strategy to talk specifically about surgeries,” Hindley said when asked specifically about meetings with Doherty and the lobbyist forms.

As for when he was minister of rural and remote health, Hindley said “I don’t believe I did, going from memory. I’ve met with dozens, if not hundreds of people.”

Hindley said he wasn’t sure who Doherty would have met with in the process of lobbying, but reiterated he did not think it was him.

Still, the registry raised eyebrows from the Opposition.

“That private clinic has donated over $14,000 to the Sask. Party, and what did they get? They got a $6-million sole-source contract for hip and knee surgeries,” said Conway during question period on Wednesday.

Hindley pushed back, arguing the contract was tendered through a request-for-proposals (RFP), an “open, transparent process that we would use to do this. Not a secret.”

He later walked that comment back and clarified it was not in fact done through an RFP process.

“This was the only company that would be able to provide what they call short stay hip and knee surgeries and as a result it wasn’t an RFP,” Hindley said Wednesday.

At the heart of the matter is Saskatchewan’s wait times for hip and knee replacement surgery, which according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) had the worst median wait times in the nation in 2023.

The median wait time for a knee surgery in Saskatchewan was 318 days, compared to the national average of 161 days. For hip surgery, the median wait time was 232 days in Saskatchewan compared 131 days nationally.

Hindley noted Thursday that the contract with the private clinic has been part of the government’s strategy to lower wait times.

“There were 161,000 surgeries that have been provided by privately delivered but publicly funded options,” he said.

But Conway argued the $6 million going to toward the contract should be kept in Saskatchewan, and also questioned the efficacy of the contract.

“Worst in the nation for hip and knee surgery wait lists before the sole-source contract, worst in the nation after the sole-source contract,” said Conway, suggesting that instead of signing the contract with the Calgary clinic, the government “could have put that money into building up the public system here.”

Hindley said the province has done that, and the budget plans for increasing capacity here in Saskatchewan.