Big isotope bills piling up at clinics: doctors

OTTAWA — Big isotope bills are starting to pile up at medical clinics.

OTTAWA — Big isotope bills are starting to pile up at medical clinics.

Doctors opened their mail last week and found bills up to $30,000 higher than usual from suppliers who have come to collect after hiking their prices in the spring.

The higher costs came around the same time Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. shut down its aging reactor at Chalk River, Ont., sparking a worldwide medical isotope shortage.

Those extra costs are just now appearing on bills.

Surcharges have added $5,000 to $30,000 to clinics’ monthly isotope invoices, said Dr. Christopher O’Brien, head of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine.

“The bills are beginning to come in,” he said.

He adds some hospitals don’t know if they’ll be able to pay on time.

Budgets were already set before Chalk River went down in May and sparked the current isotope shortage.

The added costs along the isotope supply chain have forced hospitals to go into debt or cut from other departments to pay for the procedures.

Clinics are already coping with higher expenses. Besides paying two to three times more for isotopes, they are also staying open evenings and weekends to do patient scans before the radioactive substances decay.

The isotopes have a short shelf life and cannot be stockpiled.

So hospitals are going cap in hand to Ottawa and the provinces, O’Brien said.

“We’re hoping to hear from either the provincial governments or the federal government that there will be funding to cover these increased costs through a bridging fund,” he said.

Health Canada says it has no plans to cover the extra costs.

“The government of Canada does not regulate the price of medical isotopes which is determined by private companies contracted to the provinces,” spokeswoman Christelle Legault said in an email.

“The regulation of prices for medical isotopes falls under the responsibility of the provinces and territories.”

The Ontario government has not decided on additional funding to cover isotope costs. Spokesman Dave Jensen said the province will look at the added costs and speak to suppliers before deciding anything.

Doctors have scrambled to make do with an erratic supply of isotopes since AECL powered down Chalk River after finding a leak of radioactive water.

The reactor used to produce a third of the world’s supply of the isotopes, which are used to diagnose cancer and heart ailments.

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