We’ve all heard the saying, “when you have your health, you have just about everything.” Many would successfully argue with the validity of this statement. However, American author Augusten Burroughs added just a short addendum to that statement that I think puts a whole different twist on it. He wrote, “When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.” Now this statement is something to discuss with good friends on a cold night in front of a fire.
This thought came to mind when I heard my colleague France Gélinas on the news talking about the problems that so many Northern Ontarians face as they seek the medical treatment that they need. For some time now, New Democrats have been trying to help the government understand that Ontario’s health care system is failing Northerners in many ways.
Northerners are all well acquainted with the added challenges we face to access the level of health care that we need. At some point in almost everyone’s lifetime, travel for medical consultation and or treatment has been, or will be, necessary. That’s why the Northern Health Travel Grant (NHTG) was introduced in 1985. It was designed to help all Northerners to access the same level of healthcare that Ontarians in every region enjoy. The grant is intended to help us recover a good portion of the costs associated with travel and accommodation as we seek medical treatment.
Northern MPP offices receive calls and emails almost every week from constituents who are experiencing problems that are directly associated to their northern geographic location in accessing the healthcare that they need. As many readers will recall, in early December NDP MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell introduced Bill 144, the Northern Health Travel Grant Advisory Committee. The Bill calls for the establishment of an advisory committee that would consult with Northern families and healthcare workers to derive recommendations that would address the many issues that our offices hear about. On December 5th, the bill thankfully passed second reading, meaning it will go to committee for consideration and hopefully move on through the rest of the legislative system.
New Democrats are hoping that the bill will pass so that the Ministry of Health may actually come to understand the program’s weaknesses and help them to take appropriate action.
Just days ago, France Gélinas, NDP MPP for Nickle Belt, raised a common complaint that MPPs hear. France was featured in several news articles and media interviews in which she explained how long some Northern Ontarians are having to wait to receive their NHTG.
Gélinas gave the example of Ken Obansawin whose six-year old son has cystic fibrosis. Obansawin has to make regular trips to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto as well as multiple unscheduled trips. Each trip the family incurs expenses of over $400, some of which are partially reimbursed by the NHTG. The problem is that it takes so long for the grant applications to be processed that sometimes they have to go south again before they even have reimbursement for the last trip. This puts additional stress on a family that is already stressed with their son’s health concerns. The grant application they submitted in October took 12 weeks to be processed. This is just not a reasonable turn-around time and would appear to be irresponsible on the part of Ministry of Health.
A woman from my riding called my office to say she was waiting on 2 applications and had to make a third unexpected trip. She was desperate and had to leave in just a few days. She did not have the money to pay for the trip nor any family to assist. Fortunately a local service club she approached came to the rescue and loaned her enough to pay her expenses.
My Northern NDP colleagues and I all have had multiple constituents contact our office complaining of wait times of up to four months to receive their grant payments.
The problem is that the Ford Government instituted a hiring freeze on civil servants last year in an effort to reduce the provincial debt. The problem in this case is that here we are talking about an individual’s health, not just an inconvenience. NHTG officials admit there is a huge backlog because they don’t have the staff necessary to meet their own processing guidelines and that the only site where NHTG applications are processed is in Sudbury.
Gélinas told reporters that, "To me the answer is clear: backfill those positions. The people of Northern Ontario need those workers to be there to process those claims. It is not acceptable that a government puts people through so much stress and hardship on the fact that they don't want to hire. The civil service has to provide a level of service."
It should not matter where we live in this province. We all have the right to access the same medical services. It’s understandable that the health care system can’t always afford to offer specialized, expensive services and treatment in every area. It’s just not affordable nor efficient use of our tax dollars. Therefore it is only fair that the system offers assistance to patients to afford the costs of travel and accommodation to access the treatment.
We are committed to doing all we can to see Bill 144 pass as soon as possible so our Government can take the steps necessary to eliminate this ongoing dilemma for Northern Ontarians.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues, or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 705-461-9710 or Toll free 1-800-831-1899.
Michael Mantha MPP/député