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

A dispute between the provincial government and a private clinic has led to hundreds of cataract surgeries being postponed, with at least one patient being told she will have to wait another six months.

Ann Bowman, 72, had been anxiously awaiting the surgery for two years and noticed her vision slowly deteriorating.

The surgery was scheduled to take place this month, but on June 27, the ophthalmologist called to say that the surgery had been postponed and would likely not take place until the end of this year.

“I was furious,” she said when asked how she felt after the call.

“I’m angry because I planned this. I need this surgery badly. The quality of my life depends on it.”

The next day she received a letter from the ophthalmologist stating that her surgery had been postponed because the government did not want to renew the contract of the private clinic where she had scheduled her cataract surgery.

“Despite our efforts to request the government to reconsider the decision, [the ophthalmologist’s] “Operations scheduled outside the private clinic must be rescheduled,” the letter said.

The ophthalmologist scheduled Bowman’s surgery at Vision Group, a private surgical facility. More than 7,000 cataract surgeries have been performed at Vision Group in recent years 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 institutions such as Vision Group and Western Surgery to address a growing backlog of cataract operations. The operations would be publicly funded and performed by an ophthalmologist at these institutions.

Vision Group was funded by the government to perform 5,400 cataract surgeries in 2023-2024 and performed 2,826. In 2024-2025, only 1,250 surgeries were funded.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara said in a statement that they have completed only 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 room for surgeries at Vision Group.

Province finances 3,000 fewer operations

Overall, the province is expected to fund fewer operations this budget year: 17,296, compared to 20,196 in 2023-24.

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

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

The Health Minister’s spokesperson said the government is committed to working with Vision Group to ensure patients whose operations have been postponed are given a new surgery date as soon as possible.

“The Secretary of State’s office is actively working with patients who have been rescheduled to accommodate them sooner,” Emily Coutts wrote.

A non-binary person in a burgundy suit and black shirt stands in the hallway, outside the front door of an office.
Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara says they are committed to ensuring that every patient receives cataract surgery within 16 weeks. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

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

“While the provincial government has reduced our funding for cataract surgery, we are grateful for the resources they have made available to continue helping patients,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Asagwara did not confirm how many operations have been affected, but sources with direct knowledge of the situation say it is in the hundreds.

‘Cancellations again’

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

“I now find myself in the same situation as others before me, with cancellations again,” Bowman said.

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

Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara declined to say why the surgeries had to be rescheduled, saying it was due to scheduling issues at a clinic.

“I’m glad they [Bowman] “We raised our concerns and raised this issue so that our government could take immediate action to address this,” Asagwara said.

“We have contracts with private providers and we expect them to deliver care to the people of Manitoba in a time frame that we know is more than achievable in Manitoba.”

In April, the most recent month for which data are available, the median wait time for cataract surgery in Manitoba was nine weeks. the province’s waiting time dashboard says. On average, more than 3,380 patients are waiting for cataract surgery.

This figure only tracks the time from the moment a patient sees the ophthalmologist until the surgery is performed. It does not track the waiting time for the appointment with the specialist, which can often take more than a year.

Bowman’s family doctor knew she needed cataract surgery more than two years before the surgery was scheduled, she said.

The photo shows a woman looking straight ahead and standing in front of a stage with microphones.
Kathleen Cook, health care critic for the Progressive Conservatives, says she has been wondering what will happen next with these contracts since April. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Asagwara said they are committed to ensuring that every patient undergoes cataract surgery within the 16-week time frame set by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

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

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

“These are my eyes,” Bowman said.

She is also concerned about the other people whose operations have been postponed.

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

A task force was established to address the surgical and diagnostic pandemic backlog in 2021 among PCs. In May 2022, there was a backlog of approximately 9,300 cataract surgeries in the province. This was cleared in September 2022.

The NDP government disbanded that task force in November, saying it would refocus and refocus funding on public health care.

A spokesperson for Doctors Manitoba, a physician advocacy group, said that while it is the provincial government’s job to plan the number of surgeries and allocate work to facilities, they should consult with doctors to ensure their decisions do not disrupt operations.

Kathleen Cook, health critic for the Progressive Conservatives, said she has been concerned about the future of these private contracts since April.

This spring, several deals with private clinics were in the air and the minister would not say what they were going to do with them, Cook said.

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

“We have been concerned that letting these contracts expire would lead to longer wait times for patients, and that is exactly what we are now seeing.”

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