Medical flight subsidies for Inuit get boost from federal government

The federal government has new money for medical travel for Nunavut Inuit. Canada will now pay $715 for each medical flight for beneficiaries. Up to now the federal government only provided $125 per trip.

Minister says new agreement is worth $20 million in air travel this year

Former Health Minister George Hickes says existing flight subsidies in the Non-Insured Health Benefits program didn’t reflect travel costs in the North. (Beth Brown/CBC)

The federal government is increasing its medical travel subsidy for Nunavut Inuit from $125 to $715 per trip, thanks to a new agreement with the territorial government.

The funding will be worth $20 million in air travel this year, said then-Health Minister George Hickes last Thursday before a cabinet shuffle was announced in which Lorne Kusugak was named the new minister of health, beginning Monday.

Hicks said the new funding also includes $58 million to cover "program shortfalls" in health care. 

The funding is being provided through the Non-Insured Health Benefits program, a national healthcare fund for Indigenous Canadians run by Indigenous Services Canada. 

The program covers insured health expenses not always paid for by work or territorial health care. It can cover dental, eye exams and travel escorts for expectant mothers. It also covers travel to appointments from remote locations. 

Agreement frees up money for other needed healthcare, minister says

Hickes said the existing flight subsidies in the program didn't reflect travel costs in the North. The amount hadn't changed since the territory was created in 1999. 

Last year, the territory spent more than $100 million on medical travel. 

Currently, two-week isolation hotel stays for returning medical travel patients are paid for by Nunavut's health department. 

The Nunavut government administers the benefit for Indigenous Services Canada. In March, Hickes told CBC News the territory paid $78 million to administer Non-Insured Health Benefits to Nunavut Inuit. Of that, it was reimbursed $3.7 million by Canada.

"For too long, Indigenous Services Canada has only paid for a fraction of what it costs for the government of Nunavut to deliver NIHB (non-Insured health benefits) services on its behalf," Hickes said in a minister's statement Nov. 5.

"Delivering this program on behalf of the federal government has cost the territory hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. That is money that could have been spent on improving health care programs, services or infrastructure here," he said. 

When a contract to administer the benefit expired in the spring, Hickes refused to sign a new one until flight subsidies increased. 

In the Nunavut Legislature, he called it a "statutory responsibility" of the Canadian government. 

"I made it clear to the federal government that it must meet its obligations for a program that the government of Nunavut delivers on their behalf," he said. 

The new agreement covers the current fiscal year.

An agreement for the following years is being negotiated. 

That agreement, Hickes said, "will see the government of Canada cover 100 per cent of the costs of medical travel flights and administration costs for Inuit in perpetuity."