NDP questions government over ambulance fees

A Saskatchewan man who says he faced ambulance bills of more than $5,000 after his wife's death wants the province to change its policies.

CBC program Marketplace leads to questions in Saskatchewan Legislature

Dave Carr shared his experience with fees for ambulance services. (CBC)

A Saskatchewan man who says he faced ambulance bills of more than $5,000 after his wife's death wants the province to change its policies.

Dave Carr, 70, says his wife had cervical cancer and her illness required six ambulance trips before she died in October 2013.

"I went through hell," he said Wednesday. "I covered every possible avenue to try to get some help."

The Opposition raised Carr's case in question period Wednesday as an example of a "broken" ambulance fee system.

Health Minister Dustin Duncan said ambulance fees are heavily subsidized in Saskatchewan, and more than 70 per cent of the cost is borne by taxpayers.

NDP Leader Cam Broten says Saskatchewan has one of the worst records for ambulance fees in the country.

Carr said his wife, who was 62, was not eligible for the province's seniors rate of $275 per trip for people 65 years and older.

Broten also questioned the government about the case of Sarah Bucsis-Gunn and her experience with ambulance fees related to care for her daughter. The fees were adding up to over $7,000 and Bucsis-Gunn starting transporting her child herself.

The cases were examined in detail by the CBC program Marketplace, in February.

Broten said ambulances are at the heart of the health care system, but Saskatchewan has some of the highest fees.

"We should absolutely have a cap on ambulances," he said. "We should get rid of the obscene interest charges on ambulance bills and we should get rid of the charges for transfers between health facilities when medical professionals are saying it should happen."

Broten said the interest rate charged on ambulance bills is sometimes higher than many credit cards.

Health Minister Dustin Duncan said ambulance fees are heavily subsidized in Saskatchewan and 71 per cent of the cost is borne by taxpayers.

An ambulance pickup costs $245 or $325 plus $2.30 per kilometre.

"Free health care isn't free," Duncan said. "We pay over $5 billion in this province just through the public purse in terms of what we cover for health care."

Rates vary across Canada 

Ambulance rates vary across Canada.  In New Brunswick, patients without private insurance are eligible for free services; in Ontario, patients are charged $45 for medically necessary trips within the province; in Manitoba fees depend on the area, but in Winnipeg, basic service is capped at $512.

Bucsis-Gunn said she wasn't prepared for bills she received for her daughter's trips to hospital.

Leandra, who was seven years old when she died in April 2013, required emergency ambulance trips because of seizures related to a congenital medical condition. She also needed transfers between a hospital in Regina, where her family lived, and a Saskatoon facility.

Bucsis-Gunn said she felt abandoned by the health-care system.

"That's why I'm so angry with our government ... all of her pain and suffering and extra stress that was put onto our family when we were already at our maximum capacity, all of that was in vain," she said.

Bucsis-Gunn said her daughter went home on palliative care at birth, but survived against the odds.

"And the treatment she got for surviving was horrid," she said.

She added that as ambulance bills piled up, the family struggled to pay for necessities such as a wheelchair. Bucsis-Gunn said the financial stress pushed her to forgo ambulance rides whenever possible — after a hip reconstruction surgery, she transported Leandra home on a blow-up mattress in the back of a van.

"She was a trooper," Bucsis-Gunn said, crying. "She had this infectious laugh ... she just loved to be loved, that's all she cared about."

Bucsis-Gunn, 29, said she doesn't want other families to go through what she did.

"You feel so much pressure to just do the right thing for your child," she said. "But at the same time, to do the right thing financially cripples your family."

With files from CBC's Arielle Zerr


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