Sask turns down $2 million donation for MRI
September 20, 2023
ESTEVAN, Sask. – 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 (pictured), 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 told CBC News.
Walkom, the beneficiary of a successful oilfield business, told CTV News that she was astounded by the government’s response. “They said operating costs are going to be too high and we don’t think the population is there you know, other cities get it first, that sort of thing. “So that just kind of blew us away.”
In a letter to Walkom, former Heath Minister Paul Merriman thanked her for the offer but said there are “no immediate plans to expand MRI services to St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
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.
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.”
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.