TORONTO - Ontario is trying to tackle a huge increase in out-of-province visits covered by public health insurance over the last decade, Health Minister Deb Matthews said Thursday.

"There has been a dramatic increase in out-of-country health care provided and covered through OHIP," she told the legislature.

"We are very focused on bringing that number back down."

Ontario residents can be sent out of province for medical procedures at taxpayers' expense if the province doesn't offer the procedure or if the patient needs urgent care and can't get it here.

Last year, the demand for out-of-country procedures or treatment climbed to 12,393 applications compared with 4,775 in 2004-05, according to government figures.

The province spent $127.9 million last year on out-of-country medical expenses.

The vast majority of applications - 6,381 - involved DNA testing, more than triple the number recorded in 2004-05.

Bariatric, or obesity treatment services accounted for 3,412 applications last year, up from 644 in 2004-05. MRI and CT scans accounted for 595 applications, a sharp increase from 382 the year before and close to the 670 applications received in 2004-05.

The top five genetic tests, which detect cardiac disease and congenital defects in fetuses, is something the province doesn't do now but hopes to do in the spring, Matthews said outside the chamber.

Some of the out-of-country expenses paid for by Ontario's health insurance are actually for samples that were shipped to the United States for testing, not patients, she added.

"We're making big investments to bring it back home," Matthews said.

"And it's exactly the right kind of investment we should be making as a government because it's an up-front cost, but it will save us money in the long term and provide better care for Ontarians."

The government is also spending more on providing bariatric surgery and programs to address eating disorders, Matthews said.

In March, the government announced it would spend $75 million to significantly boost its capacity to perform the weight-loss surgery and reduce the number of patients who must be sent to the United States for the operation.

Officials said the program would mean a 500 per cent increase in gastric bypass surgeries within the province, raising the number of patients who will receive the operation to 1,470 in 2011-12 from 244 this year.

She blamed the previous Conservative government for contributing to the increase in out-of-country visits, saying it shut down the province's capacity to perform certain procedures that the Liberals are trying to build up again.

The money used to ship Ontario patients south of the border should be used to fund Ontario facilities, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"Meanwhile, we're seeing cutbacks in hospitals, we're seeing emergency wards closed down, we're seeing nurses laid off," she said.

"It seems to me that that 450 per cent increase should be funding services here in Ontario and keeping those workers here working."

The governing Liberals need to take a long, hard look at how they're spending Ontario's $42-billion health budget, which amounts to nearly half of every dollar it spends, said Opposition health critic Christine Elliott.

"I don't think it's helpful to go back and blame past governments," she added.

"This government has been there for the past six years. They've had ample opportunity to take a comprehensive look at our health-care system and they've failed to do that."

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