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Saskatchewan to send breast cancer screening patients to private company in Calgary

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government says it’s going to send breast cancer patients to Calgary for screening as the province continues to deal with medical imaging backlogs.
Christy Labreche, a nuclear medicine technologist in Regina, says at a news conference on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, that short staffing at the Pasqua Hospital could result in employees no longer being able to offer CT scans. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeremy Simes

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government says it’s going to send breast cancer patients to Calgary for screening as the province continues to deal with medical imaging backlogs.

Health Minister Everett Hindley told reporters Wednesday the province has contracted Clearpoint, a private health company, to offer 1,000 scans, and the province will contact patients who are eligible to be sent there.

He said the contract with Clearpoint is in place until March 2025. The province plans to spend about $3.5 million on the plan, covering patients' medical and travel expenses. 

"Ideally we don't want to be doing this," Hindley said. 

The announcement comes as patients raise concerns about the long waits to receive medical imaging in the province.

Hindley said about 350 people are waiting for breast cancer screening, and the average wait is about 10 weeks. 

The ideal wait time should be three weeks, he said. 

"This is a short-term solution where we're able to cut this wait list down and provide women with these options to travel to Calgary to get this done."

Health-care staff have also been ringing alarms about the state of the system. 

Before the announcement, a group of health-care technologists employed at one of Regina's hospitals warned short staffing could result in patients waiting longer for imaging. 

Bashir Jalloh, president of a local CUPE union representing the workers, told reporters that by January only two CT technologists will be working at the Pasqua Hospital in Regina. 

"All of it is terrible," Jalloh said of the situation.

Christy Labreche, a nuclear medicine technologist at the hospital, said her department is short-staffed because employees are choosing to leave the province.

Labreche, who stood with six other technologists, said the province needs to increase their pay and improve working conditions to ensure people stay. 

"There's a national shortage of technologists, so now these technologists can go and work anywhere across Canada, so why wouldn't they leave Saskatchewan?" she asked.

Jalloh said Saskatchewan pays technologists $39 per hour, about $7 per hour less than what's paid to those in Alberta and Manitoba.

The Opposition NDP invited the employees to share their concerns, saying the Saskatchewan Party government needs to sit down with workers and develop a plan.

Matt Love, the rural health critic, said the province should consider paying staff more and look at ways to improve working conditions. 

"We need to have a situation where health-care workers want to work in Saskatchewan and feel respected," he said. 

During question period, Love said the province's plan to send patients to Calgary is "a sign of their failure."

Earlier this year, the province had said it's going to spend $6 million to send patients to the same company in Calgary for some hip and knee surgeries.

The government chose not to cover the travel costs for surgery patients, but is deciding to cover such expenses for patients who need breast cancer screening. 

"We have decided to (cover travel) because of the urgent nature of cancer. Really, time is of the essence," Hindley said. 

He said the province plans to fill technologist vacancies as soon as it can. 

Saskatchewan is looking to hire more than 1,000 staff to fill vacancies in various fields. Hindley said the province has hired 600 nurses over the past year. 

Last year, Saskatchewan's auditor said it anticipates the province will be  short more than 2,000 in hard-to-recruit positions over the next five years.

The province's health-care system has for years been dealing with short staffing and a lack of space for people needing long-term care. 

It has resulted in overcapacity hospitals and employees being overworked.

Earlier this week, nurses rallied outside a Saskatoon hospital calling for better working conditions. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press

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