Cancer patients lose EI during treatment

A Vancouver cancer patient whose employment insurance is about to run out is criticizing a gap in federal coverage for working people who get sick.

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A Vancouver cancer patient whose employment insurance is about to run out is criticizing a gap in federal coverage for working people who get sick. The CBC's Kathy Tomlinson reports. 1:51

A Vancouver cancer patient whose employment insurance is about to run out is criticizing a gap in federal coverage for working people who get sick.

"You pay into [EI] and you expect it to be there when you really need it the most," said Carlo Pellizzari, 26.

Pellizzari works in retail sales and is being treated for his second bout with a rare, serious form of blood cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

During both treatment periods, he was able to get EI for 15 weeks, the maximum allowed for sickness coverage. He said after that he was left with no income for several months while off work trying to recover from aggressive chemotherapy. 

"The fatigue is pretty bad," said Pellizzari. "During the treatments I was very sick. Basically vomiting every half hour or every hour after."

During his first cancer battle in 2008, Pellizzari said he was off work from March until October. When he applied for EI, he was very ill, so he didn't pay much attention to the limits on sickness benefits — until he was notified his cheques were going to stop.

'Tough to take': cancer patient

"It's pretty unfair to anybody in this situation," said Pellizzari, "You pay into it every paycheque — and then to be told you only qualify for 15 weeks. It's tough to take when you're looking at being off for six months or a year."

Carlo Pellizzari, 26, has had two sessions of aggressive chemotherapy since being diagnosed with blood cancer in 2008. (CBC)

Pellizzari is now trying to recover from a second round of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. His hematologist wrote a letter to the federal government on April 8, indicating he needed to be off work for three to six months.

However, Pellizzari said his EI coverage is set to run out early — again — in May.

"It's back to zero income, for however much longer I am off," said Pellizzari, who is now living with his parents. "I can't imagine the stress I'd be under if I had a mortgage and family at this point."

Medical professionals told CBC News the federal government has left a big crack in the system, which thousands of patients fall into each year. 

Workers with no extended benefit plans can turn to EI for 15 weeks. After that, their illness has to be "serious and prolonged" to qualify for CPP disability coverage. Medical professionals say in cases they have seen, patients have to be sick for at least a year before they can get that coverage.

8-month gap

That means there is an eight-month gap during which sick workers can't get any help from Ottawa.

"I will never get used to sitting beside someone newly diagnosed with cancer and telling them that they will only get EI sick benefits for 15 weeks," said Beverley Biggs, a Vancouver social worker who helps cancer patients. "People are shocked and feel betrayed by the Canadian government."

Pellizzari, seen here with his girlfriend, is an avid photographer who has been working full time in retail sales for years. (CBC)

Biggs said she has seen numerous patients in dire financial straits, including family breadwinners stricken with cancer, who paid into EI for years.

"There is nothing else for them but to apply for except regular income assistance [welfare], which for a single person [in B.C.] is only $606 per month," she said.

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Pellizzari believes because he has assets and assistance from his parents, he couldn't even qualify for welfare.

"You'd have to transfer vehicles out of your name and that kind of stuff.  I'm just not willing to do that," he said.

Pellizzari said he finds it frustrating and ironic that healthy workers who are unemployed can get EI for up to 50 weeks. He believes if he were willing to cheat — and ask his employer to lay him off — he would easily get more coverage.

"I'm not dishonest. I'd rather be making nothing than cheating the system," Pellizzari said. "The honest person basically gets screwed."

In 2010, 61,393 workers collected sickness benefits, while more than 10 times that many — 683,815 — collected regular EI.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada told CBC News the average worker on sickness benefits collects for 9.4 weeks.  However, 31.4 per cent claimed the maximum 15 weeks in 2008/09 — a figure that suggests thousands would collect for longer if they could.

Doctor calls for change

Dr. John Shepherd, director of the Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program of B.C., estimated 20 per cent of his patients have no extended coverage from their employers.

"We have patients who will say, 'I've got to get out of here as soon as possible because I have got to pay my bills' — and that is a significant concern for us," said Shepherd.

Dr. John Shepherd, director of the Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program of B.C., wants the federal government to look at extending EI benefits to cover cancer patients until they are well enough to go back to work. (CBC)

He said advances in medicine mean more seriously ill patients do recover enough to return to work, instead of going on long term CPP disability. He said he would like to see the federal government catch up to that reality.

"The individual who we fully expect is going to recover — and is going to be able to go back to the workforce — is the individual who currently does have the problem," he said.

"There needs to be an ability for those people to be able to deal with their disease and the treatment of their disease without having to worry about facing an undue financial penalty because of it."

The Canadian Breast Cancer Network (CBCN) surveyed 446 breast cancer survivors about the impact their disease and treatment had on their personal finances. Last year, it reported 80 per cent of respondents experienced an economic impact, often with "devastating long-term financial consequences."

The group is lobbying Ottawa to increase EI sickness benefits to a maximum 40 weeks.

"CBCN's report found that there was an average gap of 23 weeks between the end of EI sickness benefits and the end of treatment based on an average treatment time of 38 weeks," the group wrote in a submission on the 2011 federal budget.

"As a result of the financial strain, 21 per cent of respondents returned to work before they were fully able … women who struggled in their jobs due to fatigue and side-effects from treatment."

Party positions differ

CBC News asked the three major federal parties for their position on this. 

Conservative Party spokesperson Ryan Sparrow indicated it would not make changes because every EI extension costs money and this would be a "significant cost."

An email from the Liberals read, "We are in favour of a complete review of EI benefits, including special benefits like sickness benefits." The NDP indicated it would extend sickness benefits to a maximum 52 weeks.

"It's got to be addressed," said Pellizzari. "It doesn’t have to be just cancer patients, or I mean it could be anybody in any kind of medical situation where you can’t work."