Edmonton’s Medical Laboratory Proposal: A Private Insanity

I wrote the following post as an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal, October30, 2013. I hope it plays a part in halting the privatization of Edmonton’s medical laboratories.

The Alberta government is proposing to give the private sector a 15-year contract to run medical laboratory services in Edmonton. This policy meets the popular definition of insanity: a condition where you do the same thing again expecting a different result. The government proposal has been tried many times before, twice in Alberta, and it has not worked.

In 1996, premier Ralph Klein sought a private-sector provider to deliver all laboratory services in Calgary. The trouble was that none of the companies wanted the work. In the end Klein cajoled MDS and Kasper Labs into partnering with the regional health authority to form Calgary Laboratory Services. The public sector put up more than 50 per cent of the funding, provided the administrative back up and all of the work. Even so, by 2006 all of the private-sector partners had left and Calgary Laboratory Services continues as an integrated fully public non-profit medical laboratory provider.

In Edmonton, Klein forced three local private-sector labs to join forces with the giants, Gamma-Dynacare and MDS, to form Dynacare-Kasper Medical Laboratories (DKML). DKML was given the contract for most of Edmonton’s laboratory services. All hospital laboratories, except at the University of Alberta, were turned into rapid response laboratories and managed by DKML.
It did not work. By 2005, all of Edmonton’s in-patient laboratory services were back under hospital management. DKML transformed into DynaLIFE, a partnership wholly owned by LifeLabs, the fourth largest laboratory company in the world, and Gamma Dynacare, a subsidiary of LabCorp, the second largest laboratory company in the United States. DynaLIFE continues to provide community laboratory services and run the laboratory in the Fort McMurray Hospital.

In the mid-1990s, MDS (now LifeLabs) and the Toronto General Hospital (now part of the University Hospitals Network), also tried a similar public-private partnership to serve both community patients and in-patients in downtown Toronto. The for-profit company gained access to public investment and the hospitals provided all the space, the staff and the administrative backup.The partnership was dissolved in 2009. The hospitals took over all laboratory work and the stand-alone community laboratory closed. Serious attempts to integrate hospital and community laboratories under a private-sector provider have also failed at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital and in eastern Ontario.

These failed projects illustrate that commercial companies are hesitant about taking on the risks inherent in hospital care. Hospitals, by their nature, have fluctuating volume requirements and more individualized testing while private providers prefer a more predictable routine. Large hospitals need large, comprehensive in-house laboratory services to reduce turnaround times. This fact limits what can be effectively moved off site.

To compensate for these higher risks, private companies demand excessive payments to assure a reasonable profit return – an arrangement that has proved unsustainable for regional health authorities and provincial governments. Laboratory medicine is also evolving rapidly making long-term contracts difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate.

On the one hand, too many tests are currently ordered and, hopefully, with better protocols and changing health-care delivery organizations the number of tests will drop, in some cases dramatically. To ensure their profit, private companies would need to build capacity for the current volume and would, in a contract, rightly expect payments to reflect that volume for the life of the contract. This means if we meet the desirable goal of cutting unnecessary tests, we would end up paying for tests that are not done.

On the other hand, as our medical understanding grows, high quality care we will mean new tests and procedures. These tests cannot be anticipated and we will end up negotiating their adoption with a sole-source private provider for the length of a 15-year contract – a very serious problem for a system wishing to provide the best care at the best price.

Few governments could be more effective at bullying the private sector into an agreement than Klein’s and ultimately his solution did not work. Why repeat those mistakes? Alberta needs cost-effective, integrated, quality laboratory services. The sane choice would be to build on the public non-profit approaches that have been proven to work.

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2 Comments on “Edmonton’s Medical Laboratory Proposal: A Private Insanity”

  1. Robert Says:

    We have posted your column in our ‘Around the Blogs’ section at looniepolitics.com


  2. Excellent analysis Robert. I agree with your comment that this decision smacks of insanity. The risks are even worse this time around.

    The government expects the bidder to built a state of the art lab in addition to taking on the risks inherent with a 15 year contract. The bidder doesn’t know whether the Superlab will end up on the U of A campus or on the outskirts of Edmonton. This impacts the both the cost of the land and the size of the lab (the Public Health lab is supposed to be included in the lab size if the Superlab is located on the U of A site, but it’s not included if the Superlab is built on the outskirts of town).

    The only way this proposal would make any sense to a sophisticated bidder is if the RFP is filled with renegotiation triggers that allow the bidder to reopen the contract in the event of a shift in the bidder’s economics.

    Since no one can see 15 years into the future the reopeners will shift the risk back on to the Alberta taxpayer who will be left holding the bag when this “bright idea” goes sideways (again).


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