Many residents throughout northern Ontario have to travel great distances to access a specialist or certain healthcare services.
The Northern Health Travel Grant is the provincially funded program that's used to reimburse individuals who need to travel to their procedures or appointments and NDP MPP for Thunder Bay-Atikokan, Judith Monteith-Farrell, is looking to improve it.
She introduced a bill to the legislature last Tuesday that would establish a advisory committee to consult with northern families and healthcare workers to review and create recommendations around the program.
“When I was campaigning, before I was elected, the conditions around Northern Health Travel Grant were coming up time and again,” Monteith-Farrell explained.
“In Atikokan especially, it was coming up because of the seniors' population there,” she added.
“There were seniors who were telling me that they weren't going for appointments because they didn't have the money.”
Monteith-Farrell also said her constituents receiving cancer treatments experienced economic problems because of the Northern Health Travel Grant's timelines and reimbursements.
Currently, an applicant can expect an eight-week waiting period to get a cheque in the mail after applying for reimbursement through the Northern Health Travel Grant.
There's no way of applying for the grant online and if a mistake is made on the application ,it takes an additional eight weeks to receive any funding after re-applying.
“It should be a streamlined process, a modern process that people can get their reimbursement quickly,” Monteith-Farrell noted.
She said the major travel costs associated with accessing health care need to be further examined as well.
“At what point does it become unrealistic for people to carry that credit card debt? Or in many cases, people just don't have access to credit so they're borrowing,” Monteith-Farrell explained.
“I had a case where someone was borrowing from family because that's the only way they could actually travel and so the family members are waiting for the reimbursement,” she added
“We really need a system where people are not stressed out about getting their medical treatment.”
Other concerns around the health grant include its scope. The program doesn't cover certain treatments, dental procedures or surgeries, and midwifery, said Monteith-Farrell.
She hopes through her bill and the creation of an advisory committee, positive changes can be made to the travel grant.
“I think it's best that the people who work with this . . . and the people using the health travel grant on a regular basis, come up with recommendations and hopefully the government will act upon them,” Monteith-Farrell reasoned.
She said she's hopeful that her bill will receive support in the legislature, as the provincial government has discussed improving health care and looking at telehealth as well as other methods for delivering health care in the north which could free up some funding.
The bill will be debated on Dec. 5 as a private member's bill at which time it will go to second reading.
If it passes second reading the bill goes to committee for consideration and will move forward through the legislative system.
Because the provincial government has a majority, the bill could be defeated, but Monteith-Farrell said regardless of the outcome she will continue fighting for improvements to the Northern Health Travel Grant.
“We have other ways of pressuring them but I'm hopeful they will take into account the many people that need this improvement to the program and pass it,” she remarked.
“I just hope this government takes the concerns of northern Ontario into account because too often it's sort of a one size fits all and too much emphasis on southern Ontario, the Toronto region,” Monteith-Farrell added.
“They get a lot of resources. This is very little to ask to ensure people get proper access to health care in northern Ontario.”