Yukoners Tara (left) and Scott Easley are seen at the Vancouver General Hospital on July 31. On July 5, Tara underwent a double lung transplant. She said she has been in a constant fight for medical travel subsidies. (Submitted/Tara Easley)

Yukoners Tara (left) and Scott Easley are seen at the Vancouver General Hospital on July 31. On July 5, Tara underwent a double lung transplant. She said she has been in a constant fight for medical travel subsidies. (Submitted/Tara Easley)

Transplant patient gets 2 lungs amid ongoing battle for medical travel subsidies

Yukoner Tara Easley says she has been in a constant fight with the Yukon government for funding

A Yukon woman who has spent the last year battling for her life while fighting against the Yukon government’s decisions to cut medical travel subsidies for her and her escort finally got the double lung transplant she has been waiting for.

Tara Easley, 55, got her new lungs on July 5.

“That first breath was really quite amazing,” she told the News by phone on July 27. Tara said she is still getting used to walking and talking and not running out of air.

After spending a few days in the intensive care unit, she’s living in a Vancouver General Hospital room in the thoracic and respiratory unit overlooking downtown with tubes still draining fluid from the cavity that was operated on.

Tara lives in Teslin, but she has been staying in Vancouver since August 2022 while on the waiting list for, and recovering from, the medical procedure. Her husband, Scott Easley, has been taking on the role of caregiver and travel escort. Both Tara and Scott have been unable to work while away from home.

Yukoners in need of medical care that can’t be done in the territory end up going outside the territory for treatment and procedures, such as in this case. Medical travel subsidies for patients and escorts can help pay for accommodation, food and local transportation.

“Some patients are not able to travel without help,” reads the Yukon government website.

“Your medical practitioner may request an escort to accompany you. These requests will be approved if specific criteria are met. We’ll cover the travel costs of approved escorts.”

Not knowing if and when she would get a match for lungs was the most difficult part of the ordeal, she said. Not knowing whether her and her much-needed escort’s medical travel subsidies were going to be approved was extra stress.

Last fall, Tara received an email from her medical travel team informing her that her subsidy had been cut. Her options were to return to the Yukon and get set up with a medevac transfer plan or remain in British Columbia without the daily subsidy, according to email correspondence provided to the News.

Her doctors had recommended that Tara remain in Vancouver until the transplant to allow for close monitoring of her condition, which had been significantly worsening, and expedited access to intensive care, if needed.

The Easleys had raised the medical travel subsidy issue with the two territorial opposition parties who went to bat for her.

In October, the Yukon government ended up reversing its decision to revoke her subsidy.

“There is no significant disruption in the cards and we aren’t looking to create any instability for you,” former deputy minister Michael Hale wrote in an Oct. 11 email to Tara.

“We just need to continue to stay engaged in the case, given the complexity of the file and your needs.”

On Jan. 24, Tara was notified that Scott’s subsidy had been revoked.

A team from her transplant clinic wrote a letter dated Feb. 14 on her behalf requesting escort assistance.

“Tara’s disease is very advanced,” reads the letter.

“Tara must have a support person/medical escort at all times. It is absolutely not medically safe for this patient to live by herself and she needs a dedicated support person to help her in her care and basic daily activities.”

In March, Tara received an email from her medical travel team informing her that her escort’s funding was reinstated.

Tara said Scott’s file was under review again while Tara is in hospital. She doesn’t get the subsidy while in hospital.

Tara has been pleased with her medical travel team despite her disappointment in the policy, suggesting there is no policy to deal with circumstances like hers.

“It’s still an ongoing, I would say, battle with them,” Tara said.

“They have not built in a policy that has some flexibility to deal with weird one-offs.”

Tara said Yukon NDP Leader Kate White had been instrumental in getting their funding reinstated.

In a July 31 interview, White said the medical travel team is asking Tara’s clinic to give a comprehensive list of the tasks Scott does in a day to outline what he does as a caregiver in order to determine if he should qualify for the subsidy.

White said she sees this kind of issue playing out “more often” than is “acceptable” because the current policy doesn’t take into consideration the actual human condition. Meanwhile, the health system is stretched thin in Canada and around the world.

“Every 90 days, we shouldn’t have to re-justify why,” White said.

“There is a compassionate way for government to respond and one that takes into account the whole person, right, and I don’t know that the government is doing a very good job of that right now.”

While an interview was not available, Health and Social Services communications analyst Ken Hegan provided an email statement late on Aug. 1.

“The Government of Yukon recognizes that travelling for medical treatment out of the territory may cause financial strain and we are actively working to minimize impacts and provide necessary support for Yukoners,” reads the email.

“The travel for medical treatment program is available to assist eligible Yukon residents with the cost of medically necessary transportation. Yukoners are eligible for medical travel benefits if they are residents registered with the Yukon health-care insurance plan and meet the program requirements.”

The Travel for Medical Treatment Act provides insight on subsidies. The act indicates that under the director’s discretionary powers, the director can extend subsidies for patients, escorts and parents of patients (per other sections of the act) to a maximum of 90 days or “in cases where a person must leave their home community to await an organ transplant or to receive ongoing required medical treatment, to a maximum of 365 days.”

The medical travel subsidy is $166 for patients and $84 for escorts, Hegan confirmed.

Late in the afternoon on July 31, Scott found out his escort subsidy had been approved for 30 days.

An email about the decision from the director of insured health services, which was provided to the News, indicates that subsidies aren’t typically given to escorts or support people after a patient has been moved from the intensive care unit to the ward as their needs are being met by the facility.

Per the email, the director said insured health services received a letter from Vancouver Coastal Health that outlined the role of the support person for lung transplant patients, which was taken into consideration alongside legislation that guides the delivery of the program, the director’s role and the health and well-being of the patient.

Tara said she still has two tubes draining excess fluid from her chest cavity. When all the tubes are out, she can go to their temporary home in Vancouver for another at least another three months while attending exercise programs and education clinics.

“She can actually breathe,” Scott said.

Contact Dana Hatherly at dana.hatherly@yukon-news.com