Subsidies for medical air travel needed, islanders say

  • Jul. 18, 2005 2:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay-Picture yourself in a local hospital. Complications arise, and suddenly, you are medivaced to Vancouver. Many islanders have found themselves flown out in an emergency situation, then discharged in the city, without wallets or even a pair of pants, let alone a quarter for the phone.
It may not have happened to you, but it has happened to people across the north.
Now, the Northern Health Authority is attempting to address these types of medical-related travel issues in the health region.
In the February 2004 speech from the throne, Premier Campbell addressed the issue of travelling from rural areas for health care, Sean Hardiman of Northern Health told islanders at meetings here last week.
In May 2005, the province announced $6 million a year will be allocated to the problem. Northern Health received the largest sum, $4 million of the funding. Mr. Hardiman’s job is to figure out how to spend the money.
Mr. Hardiman explained it is restricted funding, so must be spent on travel related programs for physician-referred services. It can’t be used to buy equipment, hire nurses or other things like that, he said.
He also said no direct reimbursements will be made to patients.
As someone at the meeting pointed out, $4 million divided among the residents of the Northern Health region, which includes Prince George and north to the Yukon, east to Valemont and west to Haida Gwaii, is about $12 per person.
“We better not all get sick at once,” said Anne Mountifield at the special meeting with the Queen Charlotte Management Committee on July 13.
Mr. Hardiman is working on three different possible solutions for phase one of the project. One is ground transportation between key northern communities for health services. Another is lower cost or no cost airfare home after a medivac, and a call centre which will provide referrals to medical services as well as information on how to access travel related services.
For phase two, he has put a call out to airlines to assess the viability of low cost, open jaw airfares for medical travel and reduced costs of accommodation for people who have to stay overnight in another location for medical reasons.
If there was one message that rang clear from people on the islands, it is that ground transportation is not a concern here.
“We don’t have services at either end of the island to get patients to. We need to get people off the islands to Vancouver or Prince Rupert,” said regional district director Carol Kulesha in Queen Charlotte.
Travel and accommodation costs when accessing specialized services like ultrasound are some of islanders’ biggest concerns, she said.
First-time mothers are sometimes encouraged to go off island to have their babies, meaning at least a month-long stay in a larger centre. Expectant second-time mothers who have a medical history are also encouraged to leave, meaning they must take their children too, ratcheting up accommodation costs.
Ms Kulesha doesn’t think the idea of a call centre has much value. She would rather see more leniencies in discharge plans in city hospitals, pointing out that a person may be well enough to leave a bed, but not well enough to travel home.
Eric Ross suggested a central good hospital in the northwest, served by helicopters would be the best case scenerio for treating islanders.
Someone else suggested an airline offer a Northern circle route for medical travel that runs on a regular weekly schedule would help people who need to see specialists in the city.
Lisa Kendall of the Skidegate Health Centre thinks chartering an airplane on a regular basis would be viable if Northern Health partnered with the First Nation and Inuit Health Branch.
This federal program already pays airfare, accommodation, taxis and meals for status First Nation patients and escorts when needed. Last year, 517 people accessed this program from Skidegate.
Islanders also suggested Mr. Hardiman take a message back to the province, that $4 million is not enough for the north.