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Calgarians turn to health brokers to cut the pain of surgery wait lists

Michelle Lang

Calgary Herald; with files from CanWest News Service
Monday, July 25, 2005

 

Eugene Wilderman does not think he can wait the four months it could take for surgery to replace his arthritic hip at a Calgary hospital, let alone the year and a half some patients sit on waiting lists.

"If I have to wait a year, there won't be anything left of me," said Wilderman, who has to take morphine to ease his pain.

So the 62-year-old is prepared to join a growing number of Albertans who are turning to companies that find patients private surgery in Canada, the U.S. or overseas -- at a steep price.

Health brokers are emerging across the country -- at least three new firms have sprouted in Western Canada since May -- serving patients willing to pay to bypass long lineups at public Canadian hospitals.

The brokers scout out clinics and hospitals around the world and negotiate prices on behalf of the patient, who then pays thousands for a private operation.

Joint replacements, for instance, often come with a price tag of more than $20,000.

One Calgary health broker recently set up shop and several firms now in B.C. say plenty of patients from Wild Rose Country are retaining their services.

"I see a lot of clients from Alberta," said Rick Baker, founder of Timely Medical Alternatives, a Vancouver medical broker.

Although Baker believes Canada gives patients excellent medical care once people have their surgery, he said the system fails when it comes to access.

"We've had many clients who've waited three years for hip or knee surgery. They're bone on bone. They're in excruciating pain."

The issue of surgery wait times, which have been a flashpoint in the medical system for years, came to a head in June when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled lengthy waits violate the Quebec Charter of Rights.

Governments continue spending to fix the problem, including allocating $5.5 billion from last fall's federal-provincial health care accord.

Last week, Ottawa appointed Winnipeg's Dr. Brian Postl to head up the federal government's efforts to tackle wait times.

In Calgary, the longest waits are for orthopedic surgery, which can stretch to more than 18 months in some cases. Many patients, however, aren't willing to wait that long.

Wilderman recently contacted several health brokers, including Vancouver-based Surgical Tourism Canada, and plans to travel to India for a hip replacement if he has to wait more than a few months for his operation locally.

He expects to learn this week when he is scheduled for surgery in Calgary.

"I'm exploring all options," he said.

It's stories like Wilderman's that led Calgarians Paul Stewart and Jacqueline Bartkiewicz to found Alberta's first health brokerage.

Health Treks hasn't had any customers yet, but the brother and sister, who are both nurses, recently signed a contract with a medical centre in Seattle, which performs a variety of procedures.

"I don't think people have the time to research every facility out there," said Stewart.

"We've done our homework."

Like many health brokers, Health Treks doesn't charge for its services -- they will receive a referral fee from the U.S. clinic when they send patients there.

 

Brokers say the most popular operations are orthopedic, although they also refer for everything from cancer biopsies to weight loss surgery.

Most firms focus on finding surgeries and diagnostic imaging for clients in Canada and the U.S. Others, like Surgical Tourism Canada, have signed a contract with a group of hospitals in India, where surgeries are less expensive than in North America.

Brokers say they can often bargain better prices than patients who approach a clinic on their own since they refer a number of clients.

Yet some in the industry caution that patients should be careful.

Dr. Jeffrey Brock, medical director of the Medextra, said patients learn about his company's expertise and ask for a full list of all surgical charges, including any discount offered to the brokerage.

"People have to be very, very careful when they're going through a broker that they're not blinded by the discount," said Brock, who said his firm doesn't consider itself a brokerage since it develops and carries out health-care plans for patients.

mlang@theherald.canwest.com

The Calgary Herald 2005