Health

Dispute with clinic leads to postponement of hundreds of cataract surgeries in Winnipeg

A dispute between the provincial government and a privately owned clinic has led to the postponement of hundreds of cataract surgeries, with at least one patient being told she’ll have to wait another six months.

Ann Bowman, 72, has spent two years eagerly awaiting the surgery and noticing her vision slowly deteriorate.

The surgery was supposed to happen this month, but her ophthalmologist’s office called on June 27 to tell her the surgery was being postponed and likely wouldn’t happen until the end of the year.

“Piping mad,” she said when asked how she felt after receiving the call.

“I’m mad because I had planned on this. I need this surgery badly. It’s the quality of my life that depends on this.”

She received a letter from the ophthalmologist the next day, saying her surgery was postponed because the government was not renewing a contract at the private facility where her cataract surgery was scheduled.

“Despite our efforts to appeal to the government to have the decision revisited, all [the ophthalmologist’s] surgeries scheduled out of the private facility have to be moved,” the letter said.

The ophthalmologist had scheduled Bowman’s surgery to take place at Vision Group, a private surgical facility. More than 7,000 cataract surgeries have been done in the past few years at Vision Group under a contract with the provincial government.

  • Do you have a story about waiting for surgery? Send your tips to iteam@cbc.ca or call us at 204-788-3744.

Under the former Progressive Conservative government, contracts were signed with private facilities like Vision Group and Western Surgery to tackle a growing backlog of cataract surgeries. The surgeries would be publicly funded and done by an ophthalmologist at these facilities.  

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Vision Group was funded by government to do 5,400 cataract surgeries in 2023-24 and performed 2,826. In 2024-25 they were only funded for 1,250 surgeries. 

A spokesperson for Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara said in a statement they have only completed 775 of those surgeries. The statement did not explain why the ophthalmologist said the surgeries had to be rescheduled and moved to a new location if there was still space for surgeries at Vision Group.

Province funding 3,000 fewer surgeries

Overall, the province plans to fund fewer surgeries this fiscal year — 17,296, compared to 20,196 in 2023-24.

In the letter sent to Bowman by her ophthalmologist, the doctor urged patients to speak out and contact the health minister.

“Why has Manitoba Health limited options for cataract surgeries and increased wait times for its residents? You, the voter, have the loudest voice,” the letter said.

The health minister’s spokesperson said the government is committed to working with Vision Group to ensure patients whose surgeries were postponed get a new surgery date as quickly as possible.

“The minister’s office is actively working with patients who have been rescheduled to find earlier spots,” Emily Coutts wrote.

Uzoma Asagwara, Manitoba’s health minister, says they will work to ensure every patient gets cataract surgery within the 16-week benchmark. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

In a statement, a Vision Group spokesperson said they are in discussions with Manitoba Health about what the future holds for them.

“While our funding to perform cataract surgeries was reduced by the provincial government, we are grateful for the resources they provided to continue to help patients,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Asagwara did not confirm the number of surgeries affected, but sources with direct knowledge of the situation said it is in the hundreds.

‘Cancellations yet again’

Bowman feels let down by the NDP government, which campaigned on a promise to address surgical wait times.

“I just find myself in the same place as others long before me, with cancellations yet again,” Bowman said.

Bowman considered going to the United States for the surgery but said she can’t afford it. 

Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara declined to talk about what caused the surgeries to be rescheduled, saying that it relates to scheduling challenges with a clinic.

“I’m glad that she [Bowman] raised concern and brought it forward so that our government could take immediate action to address it,” Asagwara said.  

“We have contracts with private service providers, and the expectation is that they deliver care to Manitobans within a time frame that we know is more than achievable in Manitoba.”

As of April — the most recent month for which data is available — the median wait time for cataract surgery in Manitoba was nine weeks, the province’s wait-time dashboard says. An average of over 3,380 patients are waiting for cataract surgery.

This figure only tracks the time from when a patient sees the ophthalmologist to when surgery is done. The wait for the appointment with the specialist, which can often take over a year, is not tracked.

Bowman’s family doctor knew she needed cataract surgery well over two years before she was scheduled for surgery, she said.

A woman is pictured looking forward, standing in front of a podium with microphones.
Kathleen Cook, the Progressive Conservative health critic, says she has been asking about the future of these contracts since April. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Asagwara said they are committed to ensuring every patient gets cataract surgery within the Canadian Institute for Health Information’s benchmark of 16 weeks.

After CBC spoke to the minister, Bowman said someone from their office called her and told her they would reschedule Bowman for surgery in the next four weeks.

However, they couldn’t tell her who her doctor would be or where it would occur. She said she specifically chose her doctor because of her expertise. 

“These are my eyes,” Bowman said.

She is also concerned about the other people whose surgeries were postponed.

The issue of cataract surgery wait times has plagued the provincial government for decades, under both the former NDP government and the former Tory government.

A task force was struck to tackle the surgical and diagnostic pandemic backlogs in 2021 under the PCs. In May 2022, there was a backlog of roughly 9,300 cataract surgeries in the province. It was cleared by September 2022.

The NDP government shut down that task force in November, saying it would redirect the focus and funding back into public health-care delivery.

A spokesperson for Doctors Manitoba, a physician advocacy group, said while it’s the role of the provincial government to plan surgery volumes and assign the work to facilities, they need to consult with physicians to ensure their decisions don’t lead to disruptions in surgeries.

Kathleen Cook, the Progressive Conservative health critic, said she has worried about the future of these private contracts since April.

Several deals with private clinics were up in the air this spring and the minister refused to answer what they will do with them, Cook said.

“I’m very troubled, but I’m not surprised, because this is exactly what I thought would happen,” she said.

“We raised the concern that allowing these contracts to lapse would result in increased wait times for patients, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing today.”

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