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Saskatchewan Minister of Health Paul Merriman speaks to the media, on March 22.Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press

The Saskatchewan government is to spend up to $6 million to send patients to Calgary for hip and knee surgeries, a move that has irked the province’s largest health-care union.

An agreement made public Wednesday shows the province is to pay private provider Canadian Surgical Solutions to perform the procedures until March 2024.

Health Minister Paul Merriman has said the contract with the Calgary facility is meant to help people get their surgeries done faster, but CUPE Local 5430 President Bashir Jalloh isn’t convinced it will reduce wait times in the long run.

“With this trajectory, we see that the government is moving toward nothing but privatization,” Jalloh said.

In August, Merriman said the Calgary facility would perform 20 knee and hip surgeries per month for those on Saskatchewan’s surgical wait list.

The government’s latest budget shows the province wants to complete an additional 6,000 surgeries this year, some in private facilities.

Saskatchewan’s wait list has grown over the past two years after procedures were halted during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals and health-care centres have also been short-staffed.

To address this, the Saskatchewan Party government has looked to contract private providers, including plans to open two private clinics in the province. The procedures would be publicly funded but privately delivered.

However, Merriman has said patients who have the option to go to Calgary will have to pay for their travel costs, raising concerns among public health-care advocates.

Chris Gallaway, the executive director of the Alberta-based organization Friends of Medicare, said requiring people to pay for travel costs creates a two-tier system, where those who can afford to travel essentially get to jump the line.

“They’re being offered these privatization schemes as a solution, but it’s not a solution,” he said.

“It is really just an initiative to push more surgeries into for-profit surgical centres and out of a public system. It has nothing to do with actually addressing wait lists. What needs to happen is expanding public care.”

Some doctors in Alberta have raised concerns the plan would limit access in that province. However, the Alberta government has said it would have no effect on its plan to reduce its wait list.

Merriman has pitched the plan as providing choice to patients.

“It’s not a political decision,” Merriman told The Canadian Press in August. “It’s a clinical decision on where the specialist sees them in the queue.”

Merriman said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday that the plan to send patients to Calgary is temporary.

He said patients who have been waiting the longest will be contacted about the Calgary program. They must be assessed as low risk to be eligible to travel, he added.

“Participation in the program is voluntary and patients can reconsider their participation at any time,” he said.

Jalloh, however, said Saskatchewan’s plan could make employees working in the public system switch jobs to a private clinic, worsening the staffing situation.

He is also worried about patient care once people return from Calgary.

Jalloh said patients will re-enter the public system, requiring home care and therapies. And that would increase demands on staff.

“This is going to just exacerbate the problem,” Jalloh said. “If you want to do something like this, there is a need for you to try to create capacity first.”

Canadian Surgical Solutions is owned by the Clearpoint Health Network, which has many private facilities across the country. Clearpoint is owned by Kensington Capital Partners, an independent Canadian investor.

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