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Health care often a struggle for Alberta's aboriginal people, says analyst

Advocates say cases like the recently reported abuse case of a Cree quadriplegic man are relatively common in Alberta.

Aboriginal health policy analyst says he has heard 'horror stories' like quadriplegic abuse case before

Gerald Francis has launched a multi-million dollar lawsuit against several doctors, hospitals, the health minister and Alberta Health Services. (CBC)

While Alberta health-care advocates decry the abuse case of a Cree quadriplegic man, they admit stories like his are all too common.

CBC was the first to report on the case of Gerald Francis, who was hospitalized just over two years ago after falling down the stairs.

He required emergency surgery for deep, badly-infected pressure wounds that a provincial government investigation found were directly related to abuse at the Wetaskiwin hospital.

Francis has now launched a multi-million dollar lawsuit against several doctors, hospitals, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman and Alberta Health Services. He claims abuse and systemic discrimination.

One example of discrimination alleged in the lawsuit is a failure to properly deal with a language barrier. Both Francis and his primary caregiver — his common-law partner Florence Youngchief — speak Cree as a first language.

Alberta Health Services does have aboriginal liaison workers and programming, but Francis claims he was never referred to those programs. The lawsuit says not having an interpreter available affected how much Francis and his partner understood about the seriousness of his condition and their decisions about treatment.

'Holes in the system'

"There are a lot of holes in the system for First Nations," said Kris Janvier, a health policy analyst for the Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta.

He described the complexities of approaching provincial health care from an aboriginal perspective as "very challenging," and he named current funding models as an example.

In Alberta, First Nations are not eligible to apply for many provincial grants that cover uninsured expenses such as wheelchairs. Instead, they must go through a federal fund called the Non-Insured Health Benefits program.

A family will often apply and be turned down the first time, Janvier explained. Sometimes, it takes two or three attempts over many years to secure funding.

"A lot of people give up before they get there," he said.

Alberta Health Services and the provincial Ministry of Health say they cannot comment on the case due to privacy and legal concerns, although they do plan to file a statement of defence.

Francis requires two wheelchairs. Twenty-seven months after his accident, he still hasn't got one.

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