Private MRIs in the Birthplace of Socialized Medicine

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

A First Nation community about 70 kilometres southeast of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, hopes to generate profit within five years from a private MRI clinic.

The James Smith Cree Nation could create what would be the province’s first private-pay MRI facility. This became possible when the Saskatchewan government passed legislation, in 2016, allowing for such facilities as a way of decreasing wait times .

A Regina Leader-Post news story from 2016 points out that the Saskatchewan Medical Association opposed private MRI facilities, while some doctors continued to refer patient to out-of-province MRI clinics for needed tests.

For Indigenous communities, this move by the James Smith First Nation could generate new businesses and revenue streams.  While this would help residents of the communities and the province, it could also tap into the lucrative medical tourism industry.

The  Medical Tourism Association says that “Medical Tourism is where people who live in one country travel to another country to receive medical, dental and surgical care while at the same time receiving equal to or greater care than they would have in their own country, and are traveling for medical care because of affordability, better access to care or a higher level of quality of care.”

First Nations could expand beyond MRI services into other diagnostic services and elective surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements.  

Right now, many First Nations are exploring opportunities created by legal cannabis. However, there are many Indigenous communities that are not enthusiastic about this market or are concerned about the ill effects on their communities that are already dealing with addiction problems. Allowing for-profit medical services on reserves could help First Nation develop economic opportunities that go beyond the problematic casino and VLTs.

The distinct legal situation of First Nations, could make these opportunities possible.

James Smith Cree Nation is not the first Indigenous community to explore delivering  private health services to Canadians Westbank First Nation, near Kelowna, B.C., had plans for a high-end, private  healthcare facility.  The facility was slated to be about 200,000 square feet and boast 100 beds in its first phase.

In a 2012 interview with the Windspeaker newspaper, Chief Robert Louie was quoted: “It will be equivalent to a private hospital. The centre will provide all the services of a typical healthcare institution without the emergency department, obstetrics unit and psychiatric ward.

The private clinic will provide major organ surgeries, joint replacements, and cosmetic surgeries.
“It’s pretty wide open as far as a hospital goes,” Louie said.

During the discussion over the controversial hospital, Health Canada said that such a private hospital would be allowed if it only catered to non-Canadians.

Some constitutional experts said that this proposal would test Indigenous self-government. Chief Louie claimed their self-agreement does not require approval from Health Canada to build and operate a private hospital on their land.

Unfortunately, the hospital was never built because the chief involved in the project was defeated in the 2016 election.

The opening for James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan needs to be replicated across the country. The federal and provincial governments need to work with Indigenous communities that want to provide medical services to other Canadians. First Nations deserve more opportunities to develop revenue opportunities outside gambling and cannabis.

At minimum, Indigenous communities should be to allowed  to take advantage of the medical tourism industry.