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Health Minister Paul Merriman speaks to media after a tour of the COVID-19 mass immunization clinic and drive-thru immunization space at International Trade Centre in Regina on Feb. 18.Michael Bell /The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan announced a plan Thursday to reduce its backlog of surgeries by privatizing certain procedures.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said the goal is to eliminate the backlog by achieving a three-month wait time by 2030.

There are 35,000 people currently waiting for surgery in Saskatchewan, as COVID-19 has been overwhelming the health-care system.

“We have a big hill to climb,” Mr. Merriman said.

He said expanding privatized surgeries will give the Saskatchewan Health Authority additional capacity to perform more complex surgeries.

The government said it is still determining which procedures will be privatized. Those surgeries will be publicly funded, but the cost is still unknown. More information is to be provided when the province’s budget is released in the spring.

“We’re just working through this process right now, working with the SHA to get some capacity and some dollar amounts, but also the private industry to find that out,” Mr. Merriman said. He added that some procedures, such as cataract surgery, are already publicly funded and privately delivered.

Once the backlog is reduced, he said the government will assess whether to continue with the plan.

The province has set a target to perform 18,000 additional surgeries over pre-pandemic levels by 2024-25.

To meet the demand, the government is looking to recruit international health care workers and students from Saskatchewan Polytechnic, as well as asking casual and part-time health authority employees to work full time.

The province said it has issued a request for information to test the market for additional third-party surgical providers for day procedures, overnight inpatient surgeries and postoperative care including therapies and home care.

Premier Scott Moe said it’s too early to determine if the private health-care providers will be for-profit.

“We’ll see what comes in on the request for interests and then we’ll make some decisions on that point. What we’ve seen in the past is a mix of offerings,” said Mr. Moe.

The Saskatchewan Party government introduced a similar initiative in 2010 to help reduce surgical wait times when there was a backlog of 27,500 patients.

“Did it work? Yes it did. So we have to look at that kind of investment again,” Mr. Moe said.

As part of the previous four-year program, people on the waiting list were allowed to choose either a public or private provider for select surgeries. The goal was that no patient would wait more than three months.

A final report on the initiative said it helped 11,528 patients get off the waiting list within the three-month period.

NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said he worries the privatization plan will lead to people having to show their credit card along with their health card.

“That approach will make wait times worse in the public system, and inequities in the public system that exist worse,” Mr. Meili said Thursday.

“I see this government increase the amount of privatization of key services. I want to see us build up public health care.”

Mr. Moe said his government is focused on investing in public health care by increasing intensive care beds to 90 from 79 by June, which would free up more beds for surgeries.

“We’re utilizing all the tools available, and all the tools that are necessary to reduce the wait times,” said Mr. Moe.

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