Thunder Bay's family doctor shortage is affecting more than people's ability to get health care. It's also keeping many people from getting the financial support they need. 

Darlene Veinot said she can only afford to eat once a day on her Ontario Works payments.  But she's prevented from getting a job because of a back injury. 

"I'm missing two discs," Veinot said. "And I have a muscle on the right side wrapped around the sciatic nerve. So that's very, very painful."

Staff at the District of Thunder Bay Social Services Board told Veinot she should be eligible for the higher-paying Ontario Disability Support Program.  But she hasn’t had a family doctor for the last 16 years, and her past medical records are nowhere to be found.

Without that documentation, the provincial program refused her application — twice. 

"They didn't think I had enough wrong with me to warrant me being on disability," she said. "There was no documentation about how bad my back is."

Growing problem

More than a year after she applied, a tribunal has recently overturned those decisions and Veinot will finally get disability payments.  Her case manager, Jackie Livingston, said she has many more clients fighting similar battles. About 200 people in the district are currently applying for ODSP.

"The family doctor completes the ODSP package and at least 65 per cent of the clients that I've dealt with in the last three years do not have family doctors," Livingston said.

And the problem is likely to get worse.

For the last several years, a local physician has helped some of Livingston's clients with medical assessments, but he's about to retire this spring.

Livingston noted that some physicians at walk-in clinics will help clients with the ODSP forms, but they often can't because they don't know the patient's medical history well enough.

Veinot said that, during the years she was without a family doctor, she has gone to walk-in clinics and seen specialists for her back.  But she said she was unable to get her medical records to prove it.  She has also seen a mental health professional for depression.  He made notes about how serious her depression was for her ODSP claims, but that apparently wasn't enough. 

"If it wasn't for my social worker (Livingston) and my lawyer ... I might have ... stopped the process," Veinot said. "It was ... very, very disappointing to ... ask for the help and not be able to get it."