North

New emergency 'medical extraction' system for remote N.W.T. regions announced

If you’re injured in a remote area of the N.W.T., away from communities and highways, the territorial government says a new, better service will rescue you, but it could cost you thousands.

On-call air ambulance for emergencies outside communities - but patients must pay

ACCESS Air Ambulance's Yellowknife base. The territorial government says ACCESS's new medical extraction service will rescue people injured in remote regions of the N.W.T., but it could cost those people thousands. (Hugh J. Gilmour)

Injured people in remote areas of the Northwest Territories are set to receive quicker, better assistance — but it could cost them thousands of dollars.

The territorial government has announced a new service guaranteeing a speedier air ambulance response to emergencies that happen away from communities and highways. Calls to RCMP or local health centres will now be routed through Med-Response — the territory-wide dispatch and medical expertise system launched in the N.W.T. last year — and Yellowknife-based ACCESS Air Ambulance, which stands for Aeromedical Critical Care Emergency Services Specialists.

"It's quicker and it's also easier for someone in an emergency situation," said Al Martin, president of ACCESS Air Ambulance and Air Tindi, whose aircraft will be involved.

However, patients using the service will be expected to pay for it. Remote medical extractions differ from standard medevacs in that they take place outside community boundaries (such as a fishing lodge or exploration camp) and are not search and rescue operations since the location and injuries of the patient are known.

"I have actually spoken to someone who was in that situation some months ago," said Martin. "On the ground, his frustration was trying to get the information through and get a response quickly.

"This will make a big difference. I know the relief they feel that if they were in that situation again, there would be a quicker response."

'Gap in service'

A backgrounder on the new system provided to media by the territorial government on Monday admitted a "gap in service" had previously existed, whereby RCMP had to arrange remote medical extractions "on an ad-hoc basis" with whatever resources could be summoned.

That could lead to delays and difficulties in providing the right care. Moreover, RCMP had been providing the service even though it is not featured in their policing agreement for the territory and therefore not specifically funded.

"Remote medical extractions are not covered by the Northwest Territories Health Care Plan," the backgrounder said.

"The patient is responsible for the full cost of the remote medical extraction… This cost could be several thousand dollars."

The territorial government says medical extraction could be paid for by private or employer insurance benefits or through Health Canada's Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB).

"It is up to you, as the patient, to work with NIHB or the insurance company to get the cost paid for," the backgrounder explains.

"This is not unique to the Northwest Territories. There is a charge for air ambulance trips in every other province in Canada as well."

1 call a month

Martin says ACCESS is committed to dispatching an aircraft within two hours of receiving an emergency call from a remote region.

An on-call Twin Otter aircraft, equipped with skis or floats, can be swiftly refitted with medical equipment to land near hard-to-reach areas.

There is no change in the way people should report an emergency in a remote location, which is to call the RCMP or the local health centre.

Martin expects an average of up to one such call per month.

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