© Guardian photo by Heather Taweel
MLAs Richard Brown and Olive Crane spoke at the recent Standing Committee on Health and Social Development, adding their concerns to MLAs of all political stripes about the hardship medical travel costs is causing Islanders.
Standing committee wants to know how many Islanders need to go off-Island for treatment and what government is doing to help
MLAs on the provincial health committee want to know how many Islanders are forced to travel off-Island for medical appointments and what government is doing to help with their travel costs.
During a recent meeting of the Standing Committee on Health and Social Development, MLAs from all political stripes were unanimous in their concern over the hardship medical travel costs is causing Islanders.
Charlottetown MLA Richard Brown pointed to a letter published recently in The Guardian about a man who took the shuttle to Halifax for a medical appointment and had to hitchhike from the bus station in Charlottetown to Georgetown because he couldn’t afford any other way home.
“I, as an MLA, don’t want to see stories like that in the local paper, that people have to hitchhike for medical appointments. That’s not a system that I think I want,” Brown said.
“We have to look at how we bring those costs down for families.”
The number of Islanders forced to go off-Island for medical treatment has been growing.
In 2009-10, 8,761 patients received treatment in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. That number has grown steadily every year, topping out at 9,847 in 2012-13.
The province expects to spend more than $45 million this year in out-of-province health services for Islanders who are referred to specialists or hospitals off-Island.
But this budget only covers medical procedures, not the travel and accommodations costs associated with leaving the province for health appointments.
Health Minister Doug Currie has often quipped over the last year that P.E.I.’s second-largest hospital is in Halifax, because the province’s second-largest hospital budget is for out-of-province services.
Social assistance does provide some financial aid to low-income Islanders for medical travel, but Independent MLA Olive Crane said Wednesday she has been told the test used to determine need often disallows many typical family expenses, making it difficult to qualify for travel assistance.
That’s why she requested the committee probe the issue of health-care travel costs.
“I don’t think anybody knows the extent of how big the problem is,” she said.
“Medicare doesn’t really cover a lot of things that people just assume is covered. And god forbid if you get sent from Charlottetown to Halifax and then from Halifax to Toronto. Because Medicare covers the inside hospital stuff but not the outside stuff.”
She said she would like to hear not only from Currie and Community Services Minister Valerie Docherty, but also from charitable organizations that are often asked to fill gaps in available support.
Committee chair Bush Dumville said he too has been hearing from Islanders struggling with the financial impact of travelling out of province for health care. He called it a “hidden cost to the public.”
He and the rest of the committee want a detailed breakdown from Health P.E.I. of exactly how many people are referred off-Island every year, where they are going and how often they have to travel for medical services.
They want to cost out exactly what Islanders with health problems are paying for their travel in order to advise government on how best to support them.
Brown noted he has observed an increase in the number of volunteer benefits held across the province to raise money for sick Islanders who must travel for treatment.
“These groups that are volunteering, we’re burning them out,” Brown said. “Our health care cannot depend on charity.”