Increasing joint replacement surgeries in Manitoba is part of the government's latest plan to address a growing surgery backlog due to demands on health care from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A committee assigned to tackle the backlog said Wednesday the government will support an expansion of the orthopedic surgery program at Concordia Hospital in Winnipeg that will add another operating room and surgeon. 

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said she expects the additions will be in place by the end of the year and will allow up to 1,000 more surgeries annually. 

The number of orthopedic surgeries is well behind this year compared with previous years, said Dr. Peter MacDonald, chairman of the government's steering committee to address the backlog.

The extra 1,000 surgeries will be on top of the usual number the hospital would complete, he said. "We're not just going back to baseline."

The province is also providing $400,000 to the Spine Assessment Clinic so more Manitobans can get a diagnosis and treatment for back pain. About 900 people are currently waiting for an assessment by the clinic, said Gordon. 

The money will be for four new physical therapists, who will help provide more on-site, virtual and travel-based assessment services. 

Gordon noted the majority of patients can be helped through physiotherapy, chiropractic care or other pain management solutions. 

The government expects the clinic's resources will be in place in the coming months. The goal is to reduce the wait-list for assessments by next spring. 

A previously announced pilot project to send patients to Sanford Health in North Dakota is underway and nine Manitobans are receiving spinal surgery there.

The Opposition NDP said the government's update lacks real information and leaves more questions than answers. 

"Yet again, Manitobans are left waiting. Thousands, unfortunately, continue to wait in pain with no end date in sight," said health critic Uzoma Asagwara. 

The choice to gauge progress by wait times instead of backlog numbers is a deflection on the government's part, she added. 

"They're trying to make excuses and they're trying to distract Manitobans from the fact that they haven't been willing to provide the information Manitobans need in terms of this surgical and diagnostic backlog."

The advocacy organization Doctors Manitoba estimated last week that the backlog had reached nearly 168,000 cases, up by 6,300 from the previous month.

MacDonald said the committee is working with Doctors Manitoba, but he did question the organization's numbers. The committee's analysts are trying to verify the advocacy group's figures, he added. 

"When you look at the backlog numbers, they're very daunting, and then when you talk to the front lines you get a different story in some areas," he said. "We're starting to think maybe we should be looking more at wait times, which is more important to the patient."

The goal, MacDonald said, is to get back to pre-pandemic wait times. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2022.