Saturday, 8 May 2010

#NWT & #YZF Seniors to march when the legislature resumes to combat health benefit changes

Seniors to march when the legislature resumes to combat health benefit changes
Elizabeth McMillan
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 7, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - A Yellowknife Seniors Society petition opposing proposed changes to the NWT extended health benefits program now has well over 1,000 signatures and the group is planning to voice their frustrations next week when the legislative assembly resumes.

NNSL photo/graphic

Last February dozens of seniors marched outside the legislative assembly protesting proposed changes to the extended health benefits program, prompting Health Minister Sandy Lee to shelve the proposed legislation. Pictured here is Jim Wylie and Mary Carr (far right). - NNSL file photo

The petition is in favour of extending health coverage but not if seniors have to pay a portion of the costs. It says, "We the undersigned want to affirm our support for expanding access to supplementary health benefits to include everyone in the NWT and ... strongly disapprove of requiring income tested co-payments from the sick and the elderly and we strongly favour using the existing revenues from territorial income taxes to fund the expansion."

The Department of Health and Social Services held public consultations last month on a proposal to change the existing extended health benefits plan for non-aboriginal Northerners. The plan now provides eye care, medical equipment and prescriptions for seniors, people with specified conditions and people on income support. Under proposed changes, people who fall under a graduated income scale would get full coverage regardless of their age and medical condition. Representatives from the department have argued this would help people without third party insurance, members of the "working poor," who up until this point have had to pay out-of-pocket for such benefits or go without.

But while extending coverage to low-income earners, the changes would scale back coverage for high income earners, some of whom are seniors. Everyone making more than the proposed income thresholds - $30,000, $50,000 or more for people with dependants - would be required to pay a percentage of the cost of the services they use. That amount varies depending on whether they already have third party insurance.

Seniors society member David Wind, who has called the co-payment plan a "tax on the sick and elderly," said the petition shows the opposition demonstrated at a public meeting in Yellowknife last month hasn't faded.

"There's a real chill over the community, that the non-aboriginal residents are the only ones being asked to make these co-payments. It's pitting one group in our society against another," he said.

Carolyn Kobelka said she has spent almost 30 hours in the past few weeks canvassing houses across Yellowknife and has encountered overwhelming support from people of all backgrounds.

She estimates more than 90 per cent of people asked signed the petition.

"We ran into the same opinions across the board," she said.

Kobelka said she chose to get involved because she has seen health benefits for her elderly mother in Alberta erode and she didn't want the same thing to happen in the NWT.

She said she opposes co-payments and believes the territorial government could keep existing coverage and expand coverage by shifting money around from other departments or increases taxes for that purpose.

"It's the government's responsibility to look after citizens," she said. "They're doing things like throwing money at the Deh Cho Bridge ... and saying we can't afford to look after sick people."

Herself a senior with a specified medical condition, she said paying even a portion of medical costs would make it "financially untenable" to stay in the NWT.

Kobelka hopes the petition sends a message to MLAs when they return to the legislative assembly next Tuesday.

"It seems the government has been holding its breath and saying 'we only have a week, two weeks to go before it becomes official policy,'" she said. "They're gritting their teeth and barrelling through. "

Wind said the society is also planning a protest at the legislature.

He is worried it may be the last opportunity for seniors and concerned residents to have their voices heard.

Wind was also planning a meeting to be held last night at the Baker Community Centre.

A month ago, Health Minister Sandy Lee said her department planned to analyze the results of the public meetings held across the territory and present the results to the territorial government in May.

With the department sticking to a implementation date of Sept. 1, many have speculated Lee will be bringing forward legislation for MLAs to vote on.

Last winter, Lee said she was going back to the drawing board after an initial proposal to change the extended health benefits program drew the ire of seniors and people with chronic medical condition who said they would leave the territory if the policy passed.