N.S. palliative care program a 'rude awakening'

The wife of a man dying of a rare form of cancer says Nova Scotia isn't doing enough to support palliative care patients who want to die at home.

Family says provincial government needs to cover costs of special food for patient dying at home

Seana and Balfour Collins decided to move back to Nova Scotia to be with family after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. (CBC)

The wife of a man dying of a rare form of cancer says Nova Scotia isn't doing enough to support palliative care patients who want to die at home.

Seana Collins of Wolfville is calling on the provincial government to pay the cost of nutritional therapy replacement, which is the liquid food many palliative care patients need to stay alive.

Balfour Collins' food can cost up to $1,000 a month. (CBC)

"For people like my husband, it's essential to sustain life, much like his cancer medications are essential," she said.

Balfour Collins, 44, was first diagnosed with a form of thyroid cancer seven years ago, when he was living in Alberta. After his diagnosis, Collins' family decided to return to his home province of Nova Scotia. 

"We thought that the burden would be less, being closer to family supports," said his wife. "We didn't even think about the disparity in health care when we were making that decision."

In Alberta, the nutritional therapy replacement  and accompanying equipment was paid for and delivered to the Collins' home. Seana Collins said she was shocked to learn that's not the case in Nova Scotia.

"I guess I had rose-coloured glasses on. In retrospect, it probably would have changed our decision."

Rising costs

The food is not covered by private insurance either.

The cost of the food would be covered if Balfour Collins opted to stay in hospital, but because he wants to die at home, he must pay for the food and equipment needed to deliver it. The cost is between $500 and $1,000 a month.

Collins said she had a "rude awakening" when she realized the difference between the health care systems.

"It's a continual increase. As the disease progresses, so does the financial cost and the strain of that financial burden," said Seana Collins.

Charity helps out

It's a situation that infuriates Murray Salsman. He runs a non-profit charity called the Margaret Salsman Cancer Care Memorial Fund. Since 2004, it has provided more than $100,000 to families dealing with the financial strains of cancer.

"They'll give him pain medication," said Salsman. "They'll give him everything to keep him from having no pain. But what the hell, he's starving to death. He's got nothing to eat. I think it's terrible."

Murray Salsman says the government needs to reassess its palliative care program. (CBC)

Salsman's charity is now covering the cost of the Collins' food. But he said he shouldn't have to do that. He said the government is saving money because families like the Collins are opting to keep their loved ones at home.

"One day in the hospital would probably feed them for three months," he said. "I think the priority – number one – should be health. I don't care what government it is."

Seana Collins said she doesn't know how she'd support her husband and son without help from the charity.

"I would have to - much like families that are deciding between heath and food - we would have to make those hard decisions, too."

Salsman wrote Health Minister Dave Wilson to flag the problem. Wilson wrote back, saying it will be considered. Salsman doesn't understand why the minister won't make the change immediately.

"I get very, very annoyed when they get on there and tell you 'we have no money,' and then the next day, they have all kinds for someone else."