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Sask. declines $2M donation for new MRI in Estevan to the dismay of donor, mayor

A new MRI machine unveiled in Calgary this year. The Saskatchewan government turned down an offer for a $2-million donation to bring a similar machine to Estevan. (Scott Dippel/CBC - image credit)
A new MRI machine unveiled in Calgary this year. The Saskatchewan government turned down an offer for a $2-million donation to bring a similar machine to Estevan. (Scott Dippel/CBC - image credit)

A Saskatchewan philanthropist says she is "dumbstruck" after the provincial government passed on a $2-million donation that would bring a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to Estevan, Sask.

In March of this year Elaine Walkom, a businesswoman from Estevan, Sask., wrote to then-provincial health minister Paul Merriman offering to buy the machine and train two technicians to operate it at St. Joseph's Hospital.

The province declined the offer.

"I couldn't believe that they were turning down that kind of money, with a 'shut the door in my face and go away' sort of thing," Walkom said.

In an email to CBC, the Ministry of Health thanked Walkom for her generosity, but said "the development of a thorough plan is key to determining if and how a new health care service can be supported and accessible in the long term."

Return to sender

An MRI scan is a medical test that takes images of the inside of the human body, including organs, bones, muscles and blood vessels.

There are 12 MRI scanners in Saskatchewan, according to the province. The closest to Estevan are in Regina, located about 185 kilometres away.

From April 2023 to June 2023, the majority of patients waited 246 days or fewer for an MRI scan, according to the province's website.

In a series of letters sent over the past several months and now shared with CBC, Walkom offered the MRI as a way to give back to the community where she had been successful, and as part of her late husband's legacy.

Walkom's lucrative oilfield service business worked in communities across southeast Saskatchewan. She said she had been working with the hospital to get the scanner since 2021.

People here drive two hours, people over by Carnduff drive three hours. In winter, that's not ideal. - Elaine Walkom

Merriman's response said the province considers a handful of aspects like service volumes, population, staffing, wait times and the money it takes to operate a machine when deciding where to put one.

"I encourage you to work with St. Joseph's Hospital Foundation to determine what alternate needs the hospital may have that can utilize your generous donation," Merriman said in a letter to Walkom in May 2023.

Walkom said she's already donated to the hospital and the local ambulance service.

The Saskatchewan government said in a letter to Walkom that there are no immediate plans for an MRI in Estevan. Walkom called Estevan the hub of the southeast, asking why a scanner shouldn't be located there.

"I'm not going to just hand over [$2 million] to the government, the SHA or the hospital or whatever. I want to designate it for a certain thing, and I think an MRI is an excellent piece of equipment that everyone needs," she told CBC News.

"People here drive two hours, people over by Carnduff drive three hours. In winter, that's not ideal, because you're white-knuckle driving on snow and ice and whatever."

She said she doesn't know how much it would take to operate the machine, but believes the province could cover those costs if it wanted the scanner.

Without it, she feels rural Saskatchewan is being "passed over."

Estevan, nearby community says scanner would be beneficial

Administration from the rural municipality of Browning also sent a letter to Merriman in August arguing that Estevan is the best place for an MRI scanner in southeast Saskatchewan, stating that without it some communities are closer to services in the U.S.

"We cannot logically understand the decision of the Ministry of Health … [Walkom's] donation would not only be sufficient to provide the service, but will be in a location of the province in dire need of better MRI services," the letter said.

Estevan's mayor said a local MRI machine would be good for the community.

"The more equipment we can get closer to the people that need it for less travelling time and quicker availability for the tests, we look at that as a bonus," said Mayor Roy Ludwig.

Ludwig is still working on changing the province's mind by seeking the hospital board's support. He even offered to raise funds to staff the scanner if that was the issue.

Estevan's hospital previously fundraised for a CT scanner in the city and a year's operation.

Candace Kopec, director of St. Joseph's Hospital, said she understands the government's view, but would support an MRI in the hospital if that was the final decision.

She said she is unsure what it would cost to operate the machine and that the next step would be developing a financing plan for the government.

Kopec said she expects the infrastructure costs, operating costs and long-term costs would need to be financed separate from the $2 million.

Opposition critical

The provincial Opposition spoke about its disappointment with the province at a news conference Tuesday, criticizing the government's medical staff recruitment plan and execution as a failure.

Carla Beck, leader of the Saskatchewan NDP, did not mince words speaking with reporters Tuesday afternoon, bashing the province's recruitment and retention of health care workers while asking why it would push away a $2 million donation for a medical imaging machine.
Carla Beck, leader of the Saskatchewan NDP, did not mince words speaking with reporters Tuesday afternoon, bashing the province's recruitment and retention of health care workers while asking why it would push away a $2 million donation for a medical imaging machine.

Saskatchewan Opposition NDP Leader Carla Beck spoke with reporters Tuesday afternoon, bashing the province's recruitment and retention of health-care workers and asking why it would push away a $2 million donation. (Trevor Bothorel/Radio-Canada)

Matt Love, rural and remote health critic, said he was "baffled" with the government response. Referencing the donation, Opposition leader Carla Beck said "[Premier] Scott Moe should see this for what it is."

"I'm very curious to hear the explanation from the premier and his ministers as to why they literally can't get it done when someone is offering to put up their own money to buy the MRI."