Privatizing surgical procedures drives up health care costs

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December 4 2023

CBC News is reporting that the amounts the Ontario government is paying a for-profit private clinic to perform surgical procedures is more than double than what the province pays public hospital to perform the same procedures. The Don Mills Surgical Unit Ltd. is being paid $1,264 for cataract procedures, while public hospitals would be paid $508. Similarly, the clinic is being paid $4,037 for knee surgery, while public hospitals would be paid between $1,273 and $1,692.

For-profit clinic owners profiting from health care privatization in several provinces

The Don Mills Surgical Unit is owned by Clearpoint Health Network, which also owns for-profit clinics in 5 other provinces. In both Alberta and Saskatchewan, surgical procedures have been contracted out to a clinic owned by Clearpoint. In British Columbia, for the 5 years between (fiscal years) 2015/16 and 2020/21, a Clearpoint clinic called False Creek Healthcare Centre received over $12 million in public funds for privatized surgical procedures (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives).

Because of the secrecy that comes with privatization, it is very difficult to get information about how much other provincial governments are paying Clearpoint for privatized surgical procedures. However, the information from Ontario showing that contracting out surgeries to for-profit clinics is more expensive than having surgeries performed in public hospitals matches the similar findings from Alberta and Quebec.

Privatization means higher costs for patients, violations of the Canada Health Act

When surgeries have been contracted out, extra-billing — clinics charging patients fees on top of what they receive from provincial health plans — has been a problem. While extra-billing violates the Canada Health Act, there have still been problems with for-profit clinics extra-billing patients. 2 clinics providing privatized surgeries, including one owned by Clearpoint, have been audited for extra-billing in British Columbia.

And there are other costs that come with privatization. Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan contracted out surgical procedures to private clinics in other provinces or in the United States. Manitoba announced it would cover travel costs, which means an extra cost for the health care system. But Saskatchewan residents who have to travel out of province for privatized surgeries have to cover their own costs. That will make it harder for many Saskatchewan residents with modest incomes to get the treatment they need.

Privatization makes the health human resources crisis worse

The shortage of trained health care workers has reached crisis levels in many parts of Canada, but privatizing health care only makes it worse. Private for-profit clinics are hiring from the same pool of workers as the public health care system. And the higher cost of contracting out medical procedures to those clinics just means there is less money available to actually fix the crisis in health human resources.

Strengthening the public system is the only real solution

The only way to fix the problems with the health care system is to strengthen the public system. As NUPGE’s President, Bert Blundon, pointed out in an open letter to provincial and territorial premiers last summer, this means making the investments needed to deal with the crisis in health human resources. It means funding public solutions to problems like waiting lists and access to primary care.

It will cost money to strengthen the public system, but as the CBC investigation into for-profit clinics in Ontario shows, privatizing health care costs even more. And when money is put into the public system, it goes to provide care for those who need it, not to higher profits for wealthy investors.