Funding medical travel an issue for Gwaii Trust

  • Aug. 14, 2009 4:00 p.m.

To fund or not to fund medical travel, that is the question being pondered as the Gwaii Trust develops its 2009-2010 budget. Executive director Errol Winter said the funding body always took requests for medical travel as part of its travel assistance program, but it wasn’t widely known. So on the website, his staff clarified that medical travel seekers could tap into the $100,000 budget offered for educational purposes, arts, culture, sports and recreational clubs and within six weeks the remainder of the budget was gone. “We were inundated with requests,” said Mr. Winter. He was so astounded that he did some preliminary investigation and found that islanders spend at least $3.5 million a year in medical travel. This number was all he could quickly piece together by calling the hospitals, the band offices and other agencies. He said, it may even be more. With a need like that, Mr. Winter feels conflicted about where Gwaii Trust should fit in. It seems other agencies are handling the portfolio, but Gwaii Trust gave out $35,000 in medical travel in six weeks, making him question whether some people aren’t covered. He also worries whether the application process at Gwaii Trust is adequate. Can his staff determine whether people are double dipping, for example. Then the question becomes, which kind of travel is more important? Do elders, school kids, athletes or artists need the money more? He was told that the average medical trip costs $1,500, so when he divides that by $3.5 million, that comes out to 2,300 trips. “Clearly not one in two people are using this,” he says, so that raises another question. “Maybe there is another way around this.” Mr. Winter wonders whether bringing medical specialists to the islands as expensive as first thought, when compared with the cost of medical travel off island. He also wonders if entrepreneurs could find a better way, if given the opportunity. The Observer checked in with the Ministry of Health and was told that since 2004/05, the Province has provided $6 million annually to the four health authorities with large rural and remote populations for their regional Health Connections travel assistance program, which has helped 25,000 people get to medical appointments. We could not get a breakdown on how much Travel Assistance Program funds are provided specifically to the Islands by our deadline, but this program is a corporate partnership between the Ministry of Health and private transportation carriers, who agree to waive or discount their regular fees for eligible B.C. residents who must travel within the province for non-emergency medical specialistservices not available in their own community. Beyond the question of medical travel, Mr. Winter says Gwaii Trust is trying to find ways to ensure the projects they fund are making a difference. To do this, he hopes to provide a better database of what has been funded and how it’s gone. He said people will be able to look up how a similar project got funded and how the deliverables are moving along. The database, which will be available on the Gwaii Trust website will also help the directors make better decisions about what to fund. Gwaii Trust’s new budget will be announced by the end of this month, he says. As for the questions about medical travel, in the end, Gwaii Trust will make decisions based on what the people of Haida Gwaii want. He says the people are represented by their directors and he has to rely on them to bring information from the communities to the table. “I’d like to believe constituents are talking to board members and folks are engaged in that process,” he says.

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