WINNIPEG - The federal government has launched a $3.7-million pilot project to create a wait-times guarantee for aboriginals on some Manitoba reserves who face diabetes-related foot ulcers and possible amputations.

Health Minister Tony Clement said Friday that if the 18-month program is successful, it will be expanded nationally. The first phase of the program will be figuring out how long patients are waiting to get their wounds treated, since the benchmarks in place for other illnesses, such as cardiac or cancer care, aren't as well understood for diabetes.

A model will then be tested to try to guarantee wait times by improving access to treatment.

"Unfortunately there is a definite need for this kind of project," said Clement.

The rate of Type 2 diabetes among aboriginals is about four times higher than in the rest of the population. As a result, aboriginals also suffer a higher rate of complications such as vision loss, kidney damage and foot ulcers which can lead to amputations.

Clement said foot ulcers and amputations result in more hospital stays than other complications, creating hardships for patients and their families.

"What I like about this particular program is that it's action-oriented, it builds on existing resources, ensures that there's no duplication of effort but it's designed to get some things done on the ground that will make a real difference in the lives of many people."

The project will be a partnership with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Toronto-based Saint Elizabeth Health Care, a non-profit organization specializing in home care services.

Grand Chief Ron Evans could not say how long aboriginal diabetics are having to wait for treatment, or how extensive the problem is.

But he said aboriginals are often prevented from accessing timely health-care services because they're living on remote or isolated reserves.

"Many of our people right now are not sure when they will be treated or have their ulcer looked at," said Evans.

Shirley Sharkey, president and chief executive of Saint Elizabeth, said digital photography will be among the tools used to give remote residents better access to health-care specialists.

"We're well beyond studying and studying, but you can't also just jump in without a good reflection of all of that work," said Sharkey.