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A tale of two medevacs

The Yukon government insists it can't help Sheldon Miller, a man who faces a $20,000 bill for a medevac that health staff assured him he would not have to pay. But the territory helped a man in a similar situation, the News has learned.

The Yukon government insists it can’t help Sheldon Miller, a man who faces a $20,000 bill for a medevac that health staff assured him he would not have to pay.

But the territory helped a man in a similar situation, the News has learned.

Miller was evacuated from Whitehorse to Victoria in June of 2005 for fear a heart attack may be imminent.

He had recently moved from the Northwest Territories and was not yet a Yukon resident.

He told nurses, doctors and administrators he had no money. Miller had recently declared bankruptcy.

He was told not to worry about it. The two territories would work it out.

He believed them. And this proved to be a big mistake.

Contrary to what Miller had been told, bills began to arrive shortly afterwards.

The 53-year-old highway cook is unable to pay. Lately, work has been scarce.

His wife works as a hostess at the Yukon Suspension Bridge. They’re raising three young children, aged two, three and nine.

Had Miller known he would be expected to pay for the flight, he insists he never would have boarded the plane.

Yukon’s ombudsman has repeatedly asked the territory to drop Miller’s medevac bill, deeming his treatment to be a product of “administrative negligence.”

Bureaucrats wouldn’t budge. So she asked Health Minister Glenn Hart and Premier Dennis Fentie to drop Miller’s bill.

They won’t either.

Rules are rules, Miller is told. Uninsured medical patients must pay travel costs.

Yet a Watson Lake man managed to have his medevac costs partly paid for by the territory, despite being uninsured at the time of his evacuation.

Rules aren’t always rules, it appears.

Not if you have the backing of a government union, as this man did.

Or if your MLA is Premier Dennis Fentie.

The other man, aged 55, requested he not be named. He spent a year and a half fighting for a settlement with the government. He doesn’t want to stir up more trouble now.

“It’s a nightmare I’m trying to forget,” he said.

The man had trouble breathing shortly after arriving in Watson Lake five years ago.

“It was a year we had a lot of fires. I blamed it on that,” he said.

But when he did see a doctor, he learned he faced a potentially deadly problem.

The pericardium, a sack that surrounds the heart, had filled with liquid.

“The average person has a teaspoon of liquid in the pericardium,” he said. “Apparently I had a litre, and it was crushing my heart.”

“I’ve never to this day received an explanation for how, why, whatever.”

Unlike Miller, the man knew his medevac would cost him. Still, he didn’t have much of a choice.

“The doctor told me, ‘If you hadn’t gone that night, you would have been dead the next day.’”

He was billed for the medevac and ambulance rides. He estimates they cost $14,000.

He later challenged the billing. He figured it was unfair.

When he agreed to work for the territorial government, he was never told his job’s medical benefits would not cover him during the first few months of work.

After a year and a half of “dickering,” he reached a deal.

It wasn’t great. He still needed to pay a portion of the medevac. But it was better than nothing.

The settlement, which union officials confirm exists, prohibits the man from disclosing the sum he received.

The existence of such a deal appears to blow a hole in the territory’s defence of how it has treated Miller.

Yet there are important differences between the two men’s cases.

The Watson Lake man had a beef with the Education Department, his employer, for failing to tell him he would be uninsured for health care during the first few months of residency.

Miller, by contrast, has a problem with the Health Department.

And Health did treat both men equally. Both were sent bills.

Of course, it matters little to either man which arm of government bears responsibility. What matters is whether the bills stopped arriving.

They did for the Watson Lake man. They haven’t for Miller.

Now Miller’s running out of options.

The ombudsman is only able to make recommendations to government and table reports in the legislature. She’d done that. Her powers are now exhausted.

With the ombudsman’s work done, Miller’s case will likely be sent to collections.

“I don’t know what else I’m going to do now,” Miller said.

The territory tweaked its policies following the complaints launched by both men.

The Department of Education now includes a paragraph in its letter of offer to new employees, advising them to obtain private health insurance until they become residents.

And the Health Department now has clear rules in place that health staff must advise uninsured patients they are expected to pay for medevacs.

But only in the Watson Lake man’s case has the territory admitted wrongdoing.

Yet the fact the territory made policy changes following Miller’s case implies it knows it mistreated him, states McPhee.

One ambulance attendant did warn Miller he would be expected to pay, but this only came after he received assurances otherwise from nurses, doctors and administrators. And he was by then en route to the plane.

It was “too little, too late,” the ombudsman concluded.

Fentie has never explained why he won’t take up the ombudsman’s advice.

Asked by Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell in the legislature, Fentie spun his answer around to make it sound like the real victims are Yukon’s civil servants, under attack by the opposition.

The News has asked Fentie and Health Minister Glenn Hart to speak to the matter 11 times. They’ve yet to reply.

Contact John Thompson at