Starting this week Whistler MRI Clinic is offering out-of-country visitors and workers a lower-cost alternative to the Whistler Health Care Centre for X-rays.
Dr. Anthony Mascia, a sports medicine specialist in Toronto, opened the Whistler MRI clinic in January 2009 with a new MRI device that scans extremities like arm and leg joints. He has since added an ultrasound machine, and then recently jumped at the chance to purchase a new GE X-ray machine that was deployed for the Winter Olympics.
"The opportunity came to expand my services and as a radiologist the more imaging tools the more diagnoses we can make," said Dr. Mascia. "There were two things that made this possible. One is the X-ray from the athletes' village and the fact that GE was willing to sell it to me. Another is the fact that the Whistler Health Care Centre is busy, and can be expensive for some out-of-country patients."
Dr. Mascia consulted local physicians who welcomed the idea of having another x-ray option so out-of-country patients could avoid paying the rates charged at the health centre. The clinic will charge a base rate of $150 for the first x-ray and $35 for any additional x-rays are required, which is on par with private x-ray clinics across Canada.
Dr. Mascia's clinic can accept referrals from local clinics around Whistler, and has applied for provincial Medical Services Plan (MSP) coverage for x-ray services that would allow B.C. residents to use their services as well and have the costs covered.
By comparison, in August 2009 the Vancouver Coastal Health raised rates considerably for out-of-country patients using the Whistler Health Care Centre - from between $99 and $122 for a first X-ray to $187 to $504.
Dr. Cathy Zeglinski, who led the local opposition to the hike in X-ray fees, says she welcomes the additional X-ray to Whistler.
"Until now out-of-country visitors and residents had no other choice but to pay those fees, and now they have an alternative," she said. "We put a lot of effort into getting guests here and out-of-country workers here, and we've been basically holding them hostage. It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing to have to tell patients how much their X-rays will cost."
Dr. Zeglinski says she understands the pressure on Vancouver Coastal Health to balance its budget, but believes that gouging injured visitors and workers is going to hurt the resort's reputation in the long run. Even her wealthier clients from Hong Kong and Singapore are shocked by the costs at the health care centre.
She wants to know how a for-profit medical clinic can charge $150 for a lumbar X-ray and still make a profit, while the same scan costs $535 at the Whistler Health Care Centre. She believes that VCH is under the impression that all visitors to Whistler are wealthy and insured, when in fact many out-of-country patients are low income and can't afford the fees.
Dr. Mascia says his clinic was denied MSP coverage for MRI scans due to budgetary concerns, but he plans to apply to Vancouver Coastal Health again given the fact that there are no scanners in the corridor. Meanwhile his ultrasound services have passed all levels of approval at MSP, but they haven't received their final approval yet.
He expects the demand for X-rays to be steady, and is hopeful that demand for other services will pick up as well.
"To be honest the winter was challenging," said Dr. Mascia. "It was not as good as last, which is probably due to the Olympics. As I understand it everyone's business has dropped. For my business, the hill was emptier and fewer people were getting hurt. We've also had bad weather this spring, so we are not seeing the volume we did the previous year at this time."