Alberta mother's battle puts spotlight on First Nations medical care rejections

An Alberta mother is challenging the federal government over its refusal to pay for necessary medical care for her daughter, who is a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation.

NDP MP Charlie Angus took up case in the House of Commons

Kennedy Shiner, 14, has a severe overbite and molars growing in sideways. Her treatment was deemed medically necessary but the federal government has refused the claim. (CBC)

An Alberta mother is challenging the federal government over its refusal to pay for her daughter's medical care.

Stacey Shiner lives outside Calgary. Her daughter Kennedy is a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation. Kennedy has braces to correct a severe overbite and molars which were growing in sideways. The condition once left her suffering headaches and persistent discomfort.

"I couldn't really smile straight so I would never smile," Kennedy said.

Shiner applied to have her daughter's treatment covered by the federal government's Non-Insured Health Benefits Program, a program aimed at ensuring that First Nations and Inuit people receive medical care comparable to other Canadians.

Her daughter's orthodontist assured the government the treatment, which would cost more than $8,000, was medically necessary and not merely cosmetic. But Health Canada nonetheless rejected the family's claim.

"It made me pretty frustrated," Shiner said.

Stacey Shiner is fighting the federal government over its refusal to pay for her 14-year-old daughter Kennedy's medical care. (CBC)

The family appealed the government's decision but that, too, was turned down. Shiner says she spoke to other parents and realized she wasn't alone.

"They're denying everything. They're not financing anything," Shiner said.

Shiner says this is not the first time the family has had a claim rejected. In 2008, after surgeons removed a tumour from behind her daughter's eye, Shiner says Health Canada refused to pay for prescription eye drops and suggested her daughter use over-the-counter Visine instead.

This time around, Shiner says she decided to challenge the government not so much for her own family but for others who might be denied even more vital treatments.

"There's other children out there that have severe medical issues," she said.

"I don't think it's OK to stand by and let it happen."

First Nations child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock says federal funding earmarked in last week's fiscal blueprint -- specifically $71 million in the first year -- does not meet the legal obligation outlined by the tribunal. (CBC)

Shiner approached Cindy Blackstock, director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Blackstock recently won a landmark decision before a federal human rights tribunal, successfully arguing Ottawa has systematically discriminated against aboriginal youth on funding for child and family services. She connected the family with a Toronto lawyer, who agreed to help them challenge the government's ruling.

"This happens on a regular basis," Blackstock said of the Health Department's rejection.

"What's not very regular about it is you have a parent here who has been so persistent in trying to appeal it," she said. "Many parents get lost in the bureaucracy."

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus also took up the family's case, raising it in Parliament.

"I find it shocking that it takes pressure in the House of Commons to deal with children whose cases are being denied," Angus said last Thursday as he urged the government to reconsider its rejection of the Shiners' claim.

80% rejected

To Angus, this case is just the tip of the iceberg. There have been, he says, at least 534 cases of aboriginal children whose claims for orthodontic care have been rejected. Families, he says, routinely meet a dead end when they launch an appeal in what is a three-stage process.

"Eighty per cent were rejected in the first round," Angus said.

"The few that went to the second round had a 99 per cent rejection rate. On the third round, 100 per cent of these children were denied by the bureaucrats at Health Canada," he said. "That is what systemic discrimination against these children looks like."

A spokesperson for Health Canada issued a statement Friday saying there are clear criteria and guidelines in place for dental coverage and that these are always followed. While reluctant to discuss individual cases, the spokesperson added the Shiners' case had been reviewed by four different orthodontists. The spokesperson added the family's own orthodontist would be contacted to see if they could provide any further information.

The Shiners received word from Health Canada late this week that their case would be reviewed again. Their lawyer had been preparing to challenge the rejection of their claim in Federal Court. That is now on hold pending a final decision from Health Canada.