Feds raise flag over for-profit ultrasounds offered by Winnipeg clinic

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A plan by a private Winnipeg clinic to offer for-profit echocardiograms could be in jeopardy, with Health Canada saying it plans to “raise the issue” with the province.

Prota Clinic, located on Lorimer Boulevard, announced last week that it will begin offering Winnipeggers elective echocardiograms (heart ultrasounds) for $650.

While the province has given it the green light, Health Canada has raised concerns.

In an email statement sent Thursday, a spokesperson reiterated that “health services should be based on medical need and not the ability and willingness to pay.”

“Health Canada does not have the authority to directly investigate the practices of Prota Clinic. That said, Health Canada plans to raise this issue with the Manitoba Ministry of Health in the coming weeks,” Eric Morrissette wrote in the statement.

Dr. Dimitrios Balageorge, one of the clinic owners, says the waitlist for an elective heart ultrasound offers the opportunity for the private sector to come in and offer the service for those willing to pay. According the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority over 4,000 Manitobans are on the list and the average wait is 39 weeks in Winnipeg.

“If people are willing to use their disposable income in order to have tests done, [services] that have excessive waiting lists, then this is their choice to do,” Balageorge told CBC News.

Private ECGs at Prota Clinic raise questions from Health Canada1:36

‘A right to pay for this’

The Winnipeg-based clinic announced that as of Dec. 22 it would offer ultrasounds for a fee, “relieving pressure from our province’s strained healthcare system and providing Manitobans a local option to receive the care they need.”

X-ray machine at Prota Clinic in Winnipeg

An X-ray machine at Prota Clinic in Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton / CBC News)

A provincial spokesperson — pointing to a 1993 Health Services Insurance Act regulation — said these diagnostic imaging tests are specifically excluded from coverage unless provided in a hospital, meaning these services can be offered in a private facility.

The feds don’t seem to agree. It said in a statement to CBC that MRIs, echocardiograms and ultrasound imaging are a “medically necessary diagnostic service” and “should be covered by provincial and territorial plans, whether these services are provided in hospitals or private clinics, such as the Prota Clinic,” Morrissette wrote.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the clinic has been given approval to perform X-rays on the chest, extremities and spine.

Balageorge argues that every elective test conducted at Prota frees up a space for a patient in the public system.

“Jumping the queue is not what we are doing here. It implies that someone steps in front of somebody else. This is not the case. Someone is stepping outside the line. You have people leaving the line, that means it gets shorter, so everyone benefits,” he said Thursday.

He said charging for the ultrasounds does not contravene Canada’s Health Act, citing a Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

“If patients are unable to receive treatment in a timely fashion they have a right to pay for this,” he said.

‘Excuse for privatizing the system’

Prota Clinic first opened over a year ago and began offering executive health assessments for $3,800.

This includes lab tests, a full physical and a medical history assessment.

“Its nature is to uncover issues and problems and risk factors that can affect your health in the future and we take a proactive approach to prevent those issues from happening,” Balageorge said.

He says his clinic has flagged everything from cancer to tumours through these tests.

But not everyone agrees it is good for the healthcare system.

The Canadian Health Coalition, a lobby group for the preservation of the public health care system, says these extra elective tests often burden the system.

Adrienne Sinicki, the organization’s national director, says the results of these tests end up being analyzed by publicly funded doctors.

She argues that charging for tests, even elective tests, is a worrying trend.

“We hear from Manitobans and people across the country that they are worried about the under-funding of their public health care system and they’re worried that this gives an excuse for privatizing the system and people won’t have access to anymore,” she said.

Prota Clinic eyeing MRI

Health Canada said it has not received any complaints regarding private payment for insured services in Manitoba, but it did flag a planned for-profit magnetic resonance imaging clinic in Niverville.

“However, concerns have been raised about a proposal to establish a private clinic in Niverville, Manitoba which plans to charge patients for MRI scans,” wrote Morrissette.

The private company, Niverville Heritage Holdings Inc., is partnering with the town and Niverville Heritage Centre to build it.

Balageorge said he is also open to his clinic offering for-profit MRI scans.

“We know if we wanted to have one we could have one built within six months. We have already had physicists clear the site and bill time as well as costs,” he said.

However, he said he will wait to see where the government “goes with MRIs” before proceeding further.

Goertzen has previously said he supports Niverville’s new MRI, calling it inevitable given the feds plan to to rein in growth on health-care spending.

As for more expansion of Prota Clinic’s services, Goertzen’s spokesperson said there could be opportunity.

“Any opportunities to establish additional tax-payer funded capacity would require a competitive procurement process and, should such an opportunity become available, Prota Clinic would be welcome to submit their proposal for expanded services through that process,” he said.

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Feds raise flag over for-profit ultrasounds offered by Winnipeg clinic

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