North

Nunavut health-care system needs steady flight schedules during pandemic, minister says

Health Minister George Hickes says airlines are warning the territorial government that without continued financial support during the COVID-19 crisis, they'll have to further cut their flight schedules. But he says the health-care system can't function on any fewer flights. 

On Tuesday, federal government announced $5M in funding for airlines in Nunavut

A Canadian North ATR42-500 at the Cambridge Bay Airport in October 2019. The Nunavut government says it's paying airlines that operate in the territory $2.25 million each week to keep them running during the COVID-19 crisis. (CambridgeBayWeather/Wikimedia [CC BY-SA 4.0])

Nunavut's health minister says airlines are warning the territorial government that without continued financial support during the COVID-19 crisis, they'll have to further cut their flight schedules. 

But George Hickes says his health-care system can't function on any fewer flights. 

"We still have essential service workers moving around, we still need to get samples down to the labs," he said during a news conference on Wednesday. "Any further reduction in the airline schedule is unacceptable for Nunavummiut." 

On Tuesday, the federal government said it was providing $17.3 million to airlines in the North, including up to $5 million for Nunavut. Premier Joe Savikataaq says that amounts to around $1.6 million per month for Canadian North and Calm Air.

Hickes says this money is essential for healthcare delivery during the pandemic. 

When federal funding for the North was announced, Savikataaq said it fell short of what his government had asked for. 

He said the money didn't come from the federal government fast enough to keep the airlines going on the short term.

Any further reduction in the airline schedule is unacceptable for Nunavummiut.- George Hickes, Nunavut's health minister

 

Savikataaq says in March, the Nunavut government started paying northern airlines $2.25 million each week. That's around the amount of money it would have been spending on medical and duty travel contracts it holds with those airlines, but those flights have been cancelled because of the pandemic. 

"The airlines are struggling ... the airlines said they might not be viable," Savikataaq said. "We had to make sure they keep flying."

Savikataaq says at the end of the month, the Nunavut government will re-assess whether it will continue to pay the airlines. 

Minister seeks airline relief through medical travel fund

Hickes says it was Transport Canada that asked governments to keep paying airlines for flight contracts.

To see that happen at a federal level, Hickes says he's talking with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller this week. 

He wants the federal department to pay for medical travel flights it would usually fund through the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program. That's a medical benefit for Indigenous Canadians.

He made this request two weeks ago, on April 1, saying that around 89 per cent of Nunavut's medical travellers are eligible for flights through that benefit. 

Nunavut Health Minister George Hickes says his health-care system can't function on any fewer flights. Airlines across the country have cut back their schedules during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Beth Brown/CBC)

"We have asked Indigenous Services Canada to contribute the amount equal to their passenger load on Canadian North and Calm Air as per Transport Canada's recommendation," Hickes said at the time. 

April 1 marked the expiration of a contribution agreement between the two governments for delivery of the Non-Insured Health Benefits program. Hickes has already critiqued the federal government for underfunding medical travel for Inuit. 

Indigenous Services Canada told CBC it is "actively working" with the Nunavut government to make sure Inuit have "medically necessary" services. 

"We acknowledge the challenges and pressures faced by the Government of Nunavut in providing coverage," a spokesperson said in an email. 

"We are committed to continuing to work together ... to address the broader financial pressures facing the Government of Nunavut health system and to ensure Inuit have continuous access to the health supports they need."

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