Some patients getting treatment for chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes say the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay is kicking them when they are down.

Effective Nov. 1, the CBHSSJB is reducing the per diems patients and their escorts are given for lodging and meals when they receive treatment outside of the Cree communities for more than three weeks.

The new policy affects long-term patients who choose to find their own accommodations, rather than stay and eat in CBHSSJB lodging in the major centres.

"It is not the fault of the chronic patients to have to leave their communities because the medical system is not yet so advanced in the communities," said Shirley Coonishish, whose 12-year-old daughter is in Montreal being treated for a number of different things, including cerebral palsy and severe scoliosis.

Protest on funding reduction

More protests are planned against the cost reductions by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, says Shirley Coonishish. (Shirley Coonishish)

Coonishish organized a recent protest outside the Montreal hotel Espresso, where many Cree patients stay while being treated in Montreal.

"We are protesting … to give them a voice because they are too weak to have their voices," she said.

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services said the changes are fair and needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of health services to the Cree people — and to bring Cree non-insured health benefits closer to what the federal government offers other First Nations.

"Costs are rising rapidly," said Bella Petawabano, chair of the CBHSSJB.

Costs soared from $8 million in 2001 to more than $55 million in 2016, she noted.

"The number of long-term clients is expected to increase significantly in the coming years. Currently we have several hundred clients who will require kidney care soon," Petawabano said.

"Many of them will need medical services outside their home community in the years to come."

Coonishish said she has been told the daily meal per diem will be reduced by more than 50 per cent, from $33 to $14.29.

"We should be there to emotionally support the patients, not just concentrate on the dollar bill." - Shirley Coonishish

For an escort, who travels with the patient, particularly with children or with elders, the daily rate is going from $33 to $10, she said.

"Who is going to want to escort the patients? It's going to create so much more distress on patients," said Coonishish.

"I feel it's so sad, because we should be there to emotionally support the patients, not just concentrate on the dollar bill."

Sarah Spencer, a Cree patient who was at the protest last week and is currently undergoing treatment for cancer, said the reduced per diems will hit hard.

"I have to eat properly. I cannot eat properly on the amount I'm going to get," she said.

Petawabano said the board is working with each family impacted by the changes to make an individualized care plan that ensures that the best solution is found for everyone.

Coonishish, who said she has reached out to all levels of the CBHSSJB and has not heard from anyone, said more protests planned for the weeks ahead.

"The Cree health board supports the rights of clients to express themselves," Petawabano noted, encouraging them to contact the Commissioner of Complaints and Quality of Services or the Quebec Ombudsman.

With files from Marjorie Kitty