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Surgical backlog task force being dissolved, new minister says it has served its purpose

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Manitoba's new health minister is dissolving the task force set up nearly two years ago during the pandemic to clear the backlog of surgeries and diagnostic tests.

The Diagnostic and Surgical Recovery Task Force was set up by the former Progressive Conservative government during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was meant to cut down the growing wait lists for surgeries and diagnostic testing.

On Friday, Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara announced the NDP government will be shutting the task force down.

"Obviously, the wait times became a real, real crisis during COVID-19. The intentions of establishing the task force were not for it to be permanent. The intentions were for it to be a solution in the short-term to address the crisis around wait times," they said.

"I believe, we believe that the task force has served its purpose."

With the task force being wound down, Asagwara announced three projects they said would reduce the backlog.

A mobile MRI service will be deployed in northern areas of the province in about a year.

Surgical slates will be expanded at the Grace Hospital, which Asagwara said will add capacity to do up to 1,000 additional orthopedic surgeries.

An expansion of spinal surgery programs is also planned at the Brandon Regional Health Centre, Concordia Hospital and Health Sciences Centre. Asagwara said once fully established, they anticipate the backlog of more than 3,000 Manitobans waiting for spinal surgery will be cleared in a year.

The task force was something Doctors Manitoba had been long-calling for from the government during the pandemic. The organization had actually started tracking surgical and diagnostic backlogs on its own before joining efforts with the task force in 2022.

"It was intended originally when Doctors Manitoba brought it up to be temporary, so you know, it being dissolved is great," said Dr. Michael Boroditsky, president of Doctors Manitoba.

"Whatever the name of it is, whether it's a task force or other measures to accomplish that, at Doctors Manitoba, we just want to work with whoever the leaders are to make change for Manitoba."

Boroditsky said the organization is not planning to begin tracking the backlog again, but said there is still work to be done.

"Hitting pre-pandemic numbers should not be the ultimate goal. I mean, our numbers in certain areas were not great before the pandemic," he said.

"Our goal should be getting timely care for everything in every sector for every patient. And Doctors Manitoba is committed to working with whoever to meet that goal."

Progressive Conservative health critic Cathleen Cook condemned the move by the NDP.

"I think it is irresponsible to abandon the work of the task force before we have the capacity here in Manitoba to meet patient needs," she said, saying she is worried this will delay the process for those waiting for surgery.

However, the province said there will be no delay during the transition, as those who have scheduled care and those in the queue will receive treatments and procedures as scheduled.

Another PC effort to reduce surgical wait times may be on its way out as well. During the pandemic, the former government signed agreements to send some patients, including non-urgent spinal patients, out of province to receive care.

Asagwara said that should not be the standard.

As for the contracts made during that time, the health minister said they don't have all the details on all of those contracts.

"What we do know is that we can get out of those contracts and prioritize people getting care in Manitoba in a way that's not going to disrupt people getting access to the surgeries," they said.

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