Social worker to document financial fallout for cancer patients when EI ends

A social worker with the Cape Breton Cancer Centre wants to document the stories of 20 patients whose employment insurance sick benefits ran out before they were well enough to return to work.

Cape Breton Cancer Centre to interview 20 patients, use results to advocate for more benefits

Tom MacNeil is a social worker at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre. (

When social worker Tom MacNeil started working at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre in Sydney, N.S., two decades ago, he expected most of his time would be dedicated to helping patients through the emotional shock of diagnosis.

Instead, it's been spent helping them deal with the financial fallout.

That reality has prompted MacNeil to take a deeper look at the financial problems cancer patients face, particularly when employment insurance sickness benefits run out after 15 weeks but they are still too ill to return to work.

MacNeil wants to document the stories of 20 patients, work he ultimately hopes will push the federal government to extend EI sick benefits.

"We're interested in: 'What's it like to have no income source to rely on?'" he explained.

The Cape Breton Cancer Centre. (

Two things happen when a person gets ill, McNeil said. Their income drops because they have to take time off work, and their costs increase because of new expenses.

"People have trouble paying for medications sometimes," he said. Others, he said must travel to Sydney or even Halifax from rural areas such as Inverness and Chéticamp.

"They have to come down for treatments that last weeks and months and they need a place to stay." 

MacNeil said cancer treatments typically last from six months to a year and many people are not ready to return to work in 15 weeks.

Turning to cancer centre

The project, he said, will look specifically at people with cancer who have received employment insurance sick benefits in the last two years and do not have private health insurance or pension disability benefits.

MacNeil said many patients turn to the cancer centre's patient fund when their EI benefits run out. The fund is used for everything from medical travel expenses to power bills and mortgage payments, he said, but it relies on money raised in the community.

MacNeil said he plans to take the results of the work to his local MP to advocate for increased EI sick benefits.

2006 attempt to extend benefits

In 2006, the Liberal MP for the area, Mark Eyking, introduced a private member's bill while in opposition that would see EI sick benefits extended from 15 to 50 weeks. That bill was never passed.

In an email this week, Eyking said Cape Breton has high cancer rates and he often hears stories of financial hardship similar to what MacNeil is told.

Eyking said he looks forward to seeing the results of MacNeil's project and will use the results to advocate for cancer patients in Ottawa.

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton