'Who's going to help them now?': Manitoba cutting airfare subsidy for escorts of northern patients
Province says patients are still eligible for subsidy, change will save $1M yearly
A northern Manitoba leader says she feels "shock and disbelief" after hearing the provincial government plans to cut an airfare subsidy for those who escort northern patients to medical appointments in Winnipeg.
The province confirmed on Thursday that it will continue to offer the subsidy to patients within the Northern Regional Health Authority, but not to their travel companions.
Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization representing northern First Nations, said she reacted with "shock and disbelief because [these are] essential services that people that don't have other means of getting health care should have access to."
Currently, patients and their escorts have the option to pay $75 each for a flight — an optional upgrade from the default ground transportation. The health authority would then pay the air carrier the amount that would have been paid to cover ground transportation.
Under the new changes, the air option "will only be available to eligible patients," a government spokesperson said in an email.
"Escorts will need to travel by land, or to purchase a regular ticket with the air carrier," the spokesperson added. "This ensures that costs are being managed for medically necessary trips."
The province estimates the change will save the government $1 million a year.
There is currently no word on when the change will take effect.
Nora Jean Omand of Norway House, Man., said cutting the airfare subsidy for travel companions will be especially hard on those who don't speak English or who rely on their escort for help.
Omand was in Winnipeg for an MRI and said she's traveled to the city several times in the past for surgeries.
"It's the people," she said. "They don't take into consideration the help that those people are going to need."
North Wilson said the change will especially affect First Nations people who do not live on reserves, as on-reserve patients have access to federal government funding for medical travel.
"So we're talking about people that don't live on reserve, and there are quite a few, especially in the north," she said.
"Limiting access to health resources … is irresponsible, and if the province is planning to do this, they need to replace it with services in the north so people don't have to travel."
The opposition New Democrats panned the move, calling it a "regressive and short-sighted" decision by the Progressive Conservative government.
"This is taking from the most vulnerable in their time of greatest need and is shameful. For vulnerable patients, good family support is key to good health-care outcomes," Flin Flon NDP MLA Tom Lindsey said in a statement.
"The federal government is finally providing funding for First Nations women to have someone accompany them when they travel to give birth. By comparison, the province is making a regressive and short-sighted move."
Thousands of people have used the northern subsidy. For the fiscal year 2016-17 ending in March, the province covered 21,084 trips for northern patients. Of those, 7,116 were for escorts, the province said.