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Refusing to wait: Thousands of Albertans head out-of-country for medical procedures
In 2016, an estimated 63,000 Canadians, including roughly 9,000 Albertans, elected to forego the offerings of Canada’s health care system and pursued medical treatment outside the country.
The findings of the 'Leaving Canada for Medical Care' report compiled by The Fraser Institute found thousands of Canadians were willing to pay for procedures and travel in order to reduce wait times for procedures or to undergo treatments not available in Canada.
In November of 2015, Bob Bridger of Airdrie visited his doctor after experiencing joint pain. “I got a sore hip. I was diagnosed with arthritis and they told me I’d need a hip replacement.”
The extent of his pain proved unbearable for the retired RCMP officer after being told he would likely wait 18 months for the procedure.
The Kalispell Regional Health Facility in Kalispell, Montana caters to Canadians and offered the Airdrie senior an opportunity to go under the knife in a matter of weeks instead of months but the stateside surgery carried a financial cost.
“I decided to go and pay for it myself. I was prepared to borrow the money,” said the 70-year-old. “I needed to get my life back.”
“My lifestyle got so ripped apart that it got to the point where I couldn’t work or walk.”
Officials with the medical centre say Bridger was not alone in his pursuit of avenues for bypassing wait times.
“Quality of life seems to be the driving factor for people to come down here,” explained Lindzy Roth, a registered nurse who serves as the international medical tourism and wellness compass coordinator at Kalispell Regional Healthcare. “It’s not that they wouldn’t get great care (in Canada), they just want to get it done a bit sooner than they can get it done up there.”
In January, Bridger had his hip replaced, “I was up walking that afternoon,” and his name was removed from the list of people awaiting the procedure
Hospital staff assisted the Airdrie senior with the forms for requesting compensation from Alberta Health Services.
“It cost me about $32,000 Canadian to get this job done in Kalispell, Montana,” said Bridger. “I got back $1,800, almost $1,900, out of that.”
Bridger says the amount of the reimbursement was tied to the cost of the procedure in Alberta.
“They have indicated in the letter that this is fees that would normally be paid to medical people in our country, in Alberta, to do this kind of surgery,” said Bridger. “If the surgeon’s not making $1,900 to perform a total hip surgery, it’s no wonder they’re going elsewhere.”
With his new hip, Bridger has returned to the ice for rec hockey and has begun golfing again. He empathizes with those awaiting surgeries of their own.
“There’s a lot of people hobbling around and I feel sorry for every one of them because I’ve been through it. It’s terrible.”
Patients who undergo medical procedures outside of Canada are eligible for reimbursement if the procedure is offered and covered in Alberta.
With files from CTV’s Brad MacLeod.
The second part of Brad's two-part series on medical tourism will air on Thursday and include a tour of the Kaispell Regional Health Facility to demonstrate what Canadians receive when paying for medical care stateside.