Provincial health ministers, senior Winnipeg Regional Health Authority officials, high-profile donors and sports stars received "potential preferential treatment" to get speedier access to MRI scans, a confidential report obtained by the Free Press finds.
In the document, provincial auditor general Norm Ricard flagged 92 cases between 2008 and March 2016 as "instances of potential preferential treatment."
Fifty-nine of those cases involved professional athletes, including 44 Winnipeg Jets and 15 Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In the remaining cases highlighted in the seven-page report prepared by the office of the auditor general, 14 were donors, eight were radiologists, six were politicians, four were senior WRHA managers and one was a board member for the health authority.
Theresa Oswald and Sharon Blady were NDP health ministers, while Dave Chomiak was a former health minister at the time of their MRIs. The list also includes then-mayor Sam Katz, WRHA CEO Milton Sussman, who was deputy of minister of health at the time, WRHA chief operating officer Real Cloutier and vice-presidents Catherine Cook and Dave Leschasin.
Ricard first sounded the alarm on preferential access in a scathing report released two weeks ago. He said some patients — professional athletes with private insurance and patients "with influence" — were being prioritized. The report on MRI management criticized everything from preferential access to lengthy delays to unnecessary and inappropriate scans. The report also included two dozen recommendations aimed mostly at standardizing protocols and requests for MRIs.
At the time the auditor general’s report was released, Dr. Brock Wright, the WRHA’s chief medical officer, said access to diagnostic services "should be based on medical need," but admitted many athletes get MRIs done faster because their injuries tend to be acute and not chronic, warranting more urgent care.
However, he doesn’t believe politicians, senior WRHA management or prominent Winnipeggers are receiving preferential access.
"Do I have a lot of concerns that there’s a lot of abuse of the system in that regard? To be honest, I really don’t," Wright told the Free Press Monday. "If we ever had evidence that somebody is getting preferred access, we would take very definitive action."
The WRHA conducted an internal audit into the cases involving the four senior managers listed in the auditor general’s report. The results indicated no preferred access, said Diane Jensen, the internal auditor.
Two were assigned priority codes based on medical needs, Jensen said, and "no other patients were cancelled or moved or delayed to accommodate (them)." The auditor general’s report specifically addresses the need for a provincewide priority code system.
In another case, Jensen said a senior manager was able to get an MRI fairly quickly because the person was in the building when an appointment finished up earlier. But, she cautioned, regular Manitobans are also able to take advantage of last-minute openings.
The results of the internal audit coupled with the fact the auditor general sounded the potential alarm without speaking to the medical professionals associated with each person’s care are enough for Wright to consider it case closed on the other prominent people on the list.
"If we had found evidence of any kind of misuse of the system, I strongly suspect we would have broadened our review," Wright said, but "we feel that we can move forward with the recommendations."
Near the end of her seven-year tenure as Manitoba’s health minister, Oswald said she went for an MRI at the Pan Am Clinic to look at a neck and shoulder injury.
She said her scan was scheduled for Jan. 18, 2013, but Oswald, now the executive director of the Women’s Health Clinic, said she got claustrophobic and it had to be rescheduled. She went back Jan. 30.
Oswald said she was dismayed to learn Monday that both her scans had been flagged by the auditor general for "potential preferential treatment."
"I just followed what it was the physician told me to do," she said. "There was certainly never intervention on my part, to be sure, about getting into any sort of line in an expedited way."
Oswald said the auditor general never contacted her to find out anything about her MRI, saying the call from the Free Press was the first she had heard of it.
Another politician on the list, Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman), said he was surprised to hear his MRI had been flagged for potential preferred treatment, especially since he remembers waiting at least five months for the scan.
"Since it wasn’t emergent I waited," said Bezan, who had a separated shoulder. He joined the waiting list at the end of summer 2011, got the MRI in January 2012, and had surgery the following summer.
Bob Freedman, who was on the WRHA board at the time, is listed as having received two MRIs on March 4 and April 25, 2014. Freedman said he needed the MRIs because of a gall bladder attack and the life threatening complications he had after his subsequent surgery.
"My doctor said if I hadn’t been in good health I wouldn’t be here today," he said on Monday.
Freedman, like Oswald and Bezan, said he is on the list even though "I’ve never received a phone call (from the auditor general)."
Neither Blady nor Chomiak could be reached for comment. Katz did not respond to an email request for comment.
The provincial government was shut down for Easter Monday. Ricard could not be reached for comment while a spokeswoman said Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen was unavailable for comment.
In the case of the professional athletes, many of the names are well-known to fans of the Jets and Blue Bombers. The document shows several current and former players, such as oft-injured Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, assistant captain Dustin Byfuglien and former starting quarterback Drew Willy, had multiple MRIs, some just weeks apart.
Spokesmen for both the Bombers and Jets declined to comment, citing privacy issues.
Interim NDP leader Flor Marcelino said in a statement all Manitobans should receive "treatment according to medical need...
"No other consideration should be relevant."
Marcelino said no NDP MLA has ever "sought, requested or knowingly received preferential treatment for medical services" and even the auditor general’s report said he couldn’t find "evidence that conclusively determined that some persons of influence sought expedited access."
But Marcelino said all the people listed in the report should receive an apology from the auditor general, health minister and the department of Health, Seniors and Active Living for the breach of private medical information.
"All Manitobans have a right to privacy," she said. "The inappropriate disclosure of numerous patients’ private medical information is wrong and deeply concerning.
"The auditor general has a duty to set the record straight. The improper disclosure of private medical information has cast an unwarranted cloud on the reputations of many individuals."
MRI in Manitoba
The number of Manitobans waiting for an MRI as of June 2016
The average MRI wait time in Winnipeg. The average wait time at Boundary Trails Health Centre near Winkler is 17 weeks and 12 weeks at Brandon Regional Health Centre.
92 per cent
The increase in overall MRI wait times between 2011 and 2015, from 12 to 23 weeks.
Number of MRI scanners within the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
“To better ensure equity in access, we recommended that the scheduling of all MRI requests be based on medical need,” provincial auditor-general Norm Ricard said in an April 2017 report into MRI management.