WINNIPEG -- The Manitoba government has issued a request for proposals to complete elective surgeries that have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen made the announcement at a news conference on Thursday.

The proposals, which can be submitted by public and private facilities, need to explain how the applicant will handle priority surgical and diagnostic areas by creating more capacity in the province’s healthcare system.

“Our government is looking for innovative solutions to ensure that Manitobans get the surgeries that they need and we believe that this plan will get people the care that they need as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” Friesen said.

The proposals also need to identify how services can be provided while meeting the required legislative, regulatory and standards requirements, including regulatory body licensure requirements for health providers. They also can’t impact existing service delivery capacity in the public system.

The services need to start being delivered by Aug. 1.

“The Manitoba government already works with a number of providers outside the public system to provide more services, including cataract surgery and other surgical and diagnostic procedures,” Friesen said.

“This request for proposals will help us to use more capacity in the system,” he said.

The province said the priority areas include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Pediatric dental surgeries;
  • Pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeries;
  • Minor orthopedic procedures;
  • Ophthalmology surgeries;
  • Outpatient spine procedures; and
  • Outpatient urology procedures.

“I would suggest that it would be for lower-risk procedures, but it could take up things like pediatric dental, pediatric ENT, other ENT, general surgery, cataracts, outpatients spine procedures, adult general surgery, echocardiography,” Friesen said.

Friesen noted elective surgeries were suspended in Manitoba on March 16, adding many different factors went into the decision.

“We needed to preserve acute-care capacity for an anticipated surge of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals and intensive care units,” he said.

The minister said surgeries have continued throughout this time, as surgeons were told to only delay any procedures that could safely wait for 90 days.

“Approximately 70,000 elective surgeries, procedures, and activities were cancelled across the province due to COVID-19,” he said.

On April 24, the province moved to restart elective surgeries and other non-urgent health services.

Friesen said as of June 10, surgeries volumes had gone up to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic activity, but there were still about 5,500 patients waiting for surgery.

When asked about whether this is a way to bring more privatization into the healthcare system, the health minister said this is about solutions. He said right now in Manitoba we have system capacity, independent provider capacity, and private capacity.

“This is not some kind of departure from anything that’s consistent with the Canada Health Act,” Friesen said.

“This is simply commissioning for services. The difference, I would say, is that we’re tendering for it.”

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said in a statement that the province’s plan is “nothing innovative or creative.”

“Having spent four years starving the public health system of funds, the PCs are using this crisis to hand out contracts to the private sector instead of shoring up public health care,” he said.

"It is crony capitalism that seeks to line investors’ pockets while taking money out of the public system."

Lamont added the solution to addressing the backlog is to “stop rationing care and spend the money in the public system to clear the backlog.” 

NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara, who serves as the opposition’s Health Critic, said at a news conference that addressing the backlog and using every opportunity available is important.

“I think what’s concerning however, is that the minister’s announcement that they’re looking for private entities to fill that void,” Asagwara said, adding the priority should be making sure the public system is well-resourced in order to address the backlog.

Asagwara said Manitobans should be concerned by privatization and equitable access to healthcare.

In a statement, Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said the backlog should be addressed by the public healthcare system, and that expanding private healthcare isn’t the answer.

“We’re already facing a serious shortage of nurses and other health care providers in Manitoba,” Jackson said.

“Attempting to increase capacity by expanding private health care delivery risks eroding our existing public capacity by pulling health care professionals out of the public system.”

Jackson said the province needs to invest and build capacity in public healthcare and restore surgical capacity.