Bill would OK privately owned MRI scanners in Saskatchewan—with a catch

Saskatchewan Health Minister Dustin Duncan has introduced a new bill that would make Saskatchewan the latest Canadian province to allow privately owned MRIs. Presently, patients in the province are not permitted to pay out of pocket for an MRI, but the MRI Facilities Licensing Act would lift that ban.

As a rule, Canada’s healthcare is publicly funded, but over time, some provincial governments have legislated to allow private MRI scanners. Currently, British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia all offer some level of user-pay MRI.  

Duncan pointed to increasingly long wait times—there are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 patients waiting for an exam, and non-urgent scans regularly take more than 6 months—and says it is time for a change.

“Reducing wait times and giving patients more choice over their own care decisions is a high priority for the people of Saskatchewan,” Duncan said in a statement. “Wait times for many services are still too long.  Our government is committed to moving forward with new and innovative solutions to barriers that prevent the very best in patient access and satisfaction.”

A catch is built into the legislation that aims to keep a certain degree of balance to Canadian healthcare. For every MRI a private imaging provider performs, the act requires that the provider must also perform a MRI for a patient who is stuck on a public waiting list.

“The requirement for a private clinic to cover a second scan on the public wait list will increase fairness and access,” Duncan said in his statement.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders, a Canadian professional football team, and the country’s Worker’s Compensation Board both receive private MRIs in a similar arrangement; they get a private MRI, and they pay for someone on the public wait list to get one.

A growing trend

Jacques Lévesque, MD, president of the Canadian Association of Radiologists (CAR), has watched privately owned MRI scanners become more and more available in Canada. At the end of the day, Lévesque says, the most important thing is that patients are receiving proper care.

“It doesn’t matter where the exam is done if we can respect the fact that good exams are done for the right patient,” he said in a phone interview with

Lévesque notes that Canadian healthcare is evolving. Less funding is coming in from the federal level, he says, creating a financial strain on the provincial governments. This decrease in federal funding, combined with the country’s aging population, is causing each province to consider its priorities and adapt.

Lévesque thinks it makes sense for these decisions to be made at a provincial level. And in this specific instance, if the government decides privately owned MRI scanners can help a population, it makes sense to offer them in some capacity.

“As a Canadian radiologist, I really think it’s the way it should be,” he said. "When the patient really wants the exam and the province is not able to afford to run enough machines, it’s really the decision of the province.”

This newly introduced legislature might lead some would-be entrepreneurs to envision an embarrassment of riches at the expense of desperate patients, but Lévesque says the market determines the cost for these out-of-pocket exams, and the Canadian market is smart.

“With Canadian patients, it’s not in their mind to pay for private MRIs, so you have to offer a quality exam at a very good price, or believe me, the patient will not come in,” he said. “It’s not possible to ask the patients here to pay the prices you get in the United States. It’s impossible.”