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People with disabilities growing sicker in poverty with no election promises to give them hope

Last Updated Oct 15, 2020 at 8:20 am PDT

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Summary

People with disabilities NEWS 1130 has spoken say they cannot afford mandatory medical care under assistance

PWD say all three B.C. party leaders have failed to promise improvements

A poverty advocate, doctor and disability lawyer say province is failing people in need

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — People on disability assistance say they are getting sicker because of a “Grand-Canyon-sized-gap” in provincial medical coverage and all three main political parties have failed to offer them hope during the provincial election campaign.

NEWS 1130 has spoken with four people who have complex disabilities and say they pay out-of-pocket for both basic and life-altering treatments they cannot afford.

“So you’re in a situation where you’re choosing between food and medicine or you’re going into debt. Eventually you end up not being able to do or afford the things that support your health at all,” says one person, who has been steadily growing more sick over 25 years of what she considers inhumanely low coverage.

Lawyer Andrew Robb with Disability Alliance BC says his clients experience deteriorating health and believes the government should be challenged to uphold human rights.

“I think that people do have a right to healthcare and a right to be well and I think the way that the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction administers the Persons with Disability program, right now, is not consistent with those rights,” he says.

He says B.C.’s regulations list very specific services and fees that are covered and bureaucrats generally will not stray from that list, unlike in other provinces, where more discretion is allowed.

“It has certainly been our experience that people very frequently need and require more assistance, more services, more treatments than are covered by the regulations,” he says.

The ministry covers $23.50 for each extended health visit, to a maximum of 10 visits each year.

That means a person with disabilities (PWD) only receives $230.50 annually to spend between practitioners such as physiotherapists, registered massage therapists, naturopathic doctors and acupuncturists.

Many people with complex health needs believe their situation has deteriorated because of this dearth of coverage, as they have been forced to forgo preventative treatments.

One person NEWS 1130 spoke with is moving forward with her request to seek assisted dying as she can no longer afford the care required to keep her pain within a tolerable window.

She says she does not believe the current NDP government, or any other party that could take power after this election, will change the law in time to save her life.

Preventative care saves money

Dr. Rebecca Handford is the president of the BC Naturopathic Association. She says the previous provincial Liberal administration cut MSP funding to extended health, including naturopathy, which many people with complex disabilities report finding relief with.

“It kind of speaks to a larger problem which is funding prevention versus emergency care … Overall, as a society, we don’t value prevention as a means of keeping people healthy,” says Handford.

She says prevention is always cheaper than emergent care and cheaper than allowing people to descend into more painful, more complex situations because of an out-of-date approach to medicine.

“The overall perspective that we need to change is to spend a little money now to prevent a larger expense later on,” she argues, adding it’s difficult to prove the value of prevention.

“When you prevent further problems, they don’t happen, and how do you prove that they didn’t happen?” she says.

Handford says naturopathy and other extended health deserves more coverage because people with complex care needs require in-depth assessment and understanding of their conditions, as well as a holistic approach to healthcare.

“If you went to see a regular medical doctor for nutrition advice, that would be outside of what is paid for by MSP,” she points out, highlighting how essential diet is to overall health.

One person explained how naturopathic IV treatments have given her a quality of life she hasn’t been able to achieve through any other means.

However, the total annual MSP coverage amounts to less than the cost of two visits, or one week’s worth of care.

Using the 10 visits per year on one treatment or modality means she cannot seek out other preventative and pain-relieving care, such as physiotherapy or massage.

As a result she’s had to ask for charity from providers, who have been kind enough to take the hit to their income, for her benefit.

She wants to see more discretion for the government to support individuals’ needs when they require more than traditional Western medicine.

“So that you don’t end up in this fully emergent situation where you’ve got a patient falling off the edge of a cliff and you don’t know what the hell to do because the more illnesses you have, the harder it is to manage deterioration,” she says.

The DABC’s Robb says his clients often stop their treatments out of necessity.

“And they end up needing emergency medical care instead of receiving preventative care that might have kept them from this situation in the first place,” he says.

Robb also wants to see the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction loosen up regulations about what medical treatments, devices and supports can be approved.

“We’re talking extremely rigid,” he says of current regulations.

He blames the Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Regulation, which bureaucrats and ministry staff must adhere to.

He says PWD and their advocates, who have been trying to make the case for any needs outside of the rigid legislation, have been shut down “in every case” he’s witnessed.

“There’s no room for flexibility or discretion about that,” he says.

Just give them cash

Anti-poverty advocates argue that disability tax credits, low assistance payments and a lack of medical support are the wrong way to approach this issue.

A recent pilot project showed giving people direct cash transfers helped them find a path to better lives and out of poverty.

Claire Willaims is the co-founder and CEO of Foundations for Social Change and has a complex disability herself.

“The cost of living is incredibly high,” she says, outlining rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver costs double the total maximum monthly payment a PWD currently receives.

“I think it’s incredibly unrealistic to expect people to subsist on that kind of money, never mind thrive,” she says, pointing out emergency payments for employees amounted to more than double many PWD payments.

“I think there is a general mistrust around people going on disability. Any situation or circumstance that ultimately puts somebody in a place where they require some kind of cash support, for whatever reason, inherently generates a sense of mistrust,” she says.

The recent New Leaf pilot project showed that mistrust and stigma is unnecessary, she argues, invoking the philosophy of Dutch historian and economic equality advocate, Rutger Bregman.

“He says living in poverty is not a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash so I think we need to start looking at more meaningful risk taking in the space of social policy to support Canadians that need that extra help.”