A plan by the Government of the Northwest Territories to have high-income earners pay for a portion of their supplementary health care in order to open the program to low-income earners was resoundingly denounced during a town hall meeting in Hay River on Thursday evening.
A crowd of approximately 60 people, mainly seniors, voiced their displeasure with the proposed changes to Dana Heide, assistant deputy minister of Health and Social Services, at the meeting.
The current supplementary health benefits program includes the seniors’ health benefits program, the specified health benefits program and the indigent health benefits program. Approximately 2,000 NWT residents are currently without access to either the supplementary health benefits or third-party health coverage, Heide said.
“There’s a hole in it,” Heide said of the current program. “One of the reasons we’re trying to fix the program is because there are pieces of the population that aren’t serviced at all.”
Eileen Collins, the past president of the Hay River Seniors Society, called the GNWT’s proposed plan of creating income thresholds at $30,000 or $50,000, “the Robin Hood principle.” Under the plan, non-aboriginal residents who make less than the threshold amount would have 100 per cent of a number of services, including prescription drugs, some vision and dental care, and medical travel, covered. Residents above the limit would be responsible for paying a portion of their own supplementary health costs.
“We live in hope that we will be heard on this because there are far too many disparities to make this work for seniors,” Collins said, explaining that she knows of two people who left Hay River two weeks ago because of the changes, and another two who are considering it.
Another Hay River resident warned Heide of a mass exodus of seniors from the north if the GNWT goes ahead with the changes.
Shari Burnstad told Heide that a petition asking the GNWT to hold off on the changes had over 175 signatures on it after less than two days. The loss of seniors would also cost the GNWT millions in transfer payments from the federal government, which are based on population.
“The way that it has been handled has been very poor,” she told Heide. “I’m not sure there is a whole lot of trust.”
Heide said the NWT’s health care would still provide “the best medical benefits in Canada,” even if the changes were to go through.
“I would hate to see anybody leave the North because of this,” Heide told those in attendance. “Before you pack your bags and move, make sure you know what you’re getting into.”
The debate over the proposed changes also raged at the legislative assembly last week.
A March 19 letter from the Hay River Seniors’ Society asking Health and Social Services minister Sandy Lee to consider the seniors’ concerns before proceeding with any changes was tabled by Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen on March 24.
“Seniors’ incomes are fixed and we are concerned about any increases in the cost of living, like health care and utilities,” John Brockway, president of the Society, wrote in the letter. “An exodus of seniors from the north looking for a more affordable place to live would create a domino effect and negatively impact on volunteerism, transfer payments and reducing the market for local businesses.”
Groenewegen said it was impossible to quantify the benefits seniors bring to their communities.
“The exodus of seniors from the North looking for a more affordable place to live would diminish an already declining NWT population,” she said. “The GNWT expends resources in attempting to attract people to live, work and invest in the North, with limited success. Equal attention should be paid to the efforts to retain the people that we already have.”
Many other MLAs also expressed concerns with the plan.
Kam Lake MLA Dave Ramsay called it a “direct attack on seniors” and said the GNWT’s proposal seems “predetermined.”
“If the Minister wants to address the gap that exists, then find a way to do that,” he said Thursday in the legislative assembly. “But … changes cannot be made on the backs of the sick and the elderly.”
Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins called the plan “a ridiculous initiative that needs to stop today.”
“Any parent can tell you that if you have two children, when you take something away and give it to the other child, it is not reasonable parenting,” he said. “There has to be a better way to do this.”
Lee said the changes were about fairness.
“I know that any debate about health benefits is difficult, it’s emotional, and it’s a difficult thing to do,” she said Thursday. “In answering the Member‘s question, it is a little bit about redistributing resources, but most importantly, Mr. Speaker, it’s about fairness.”
The Hay River meeting was the second in a series of town-hall meetings across the NWT. Meetings were also held in Fort Simpson on March 23, Inuvik on Monday, and Norman Wells yesterday. Meetings are also scheduled in Fort Smith tomorrow and Yellowknife on April 7. A proposal will be brought to the GNWT in April or May, with a planned implementation for September.