Patients call for improvements to medical travel program

When Russ Ackland travelled to Vancouver for a medical procedure in September, he didn’t expect to rack up a $600 hotel bill in two nights.

When Russ Ackland travelled to Vancouver for a medical procedure in September, he didn’t expect to rack up a $600 hotel bill in two nights.

That bill was two months’ rent for Ackland, who pays about $314 a month at the affordable seniors’ residence on Front Street in Whitehorse. His monthly income is less than $1,500.

“It’s just the fact that it’s humiliating,” he said.

Ackland is one of several people who have approached the News with concerns about Yukon’s medical travel system, some arguing that the government needs to take a fresh look at the program.

It wasn’t just the cost that upset Ackland. He felt lost throughout the process and didn’t know where to turn for advice about how to keep the trip affordable. He doesn’t own a computer or a cellphone.

His daughter, Lacey, eventually booked him a room at the Burrard Hotel. She said a number of events in Vancouver that weekend made it hard to find a room at all, let alone anything affordable. Even with the hotel’s hospital rates, the bill for two nights totalled $637.

“My dad’s dignity was a bit taken from him, going on that trip,” Lacey said. “It was very degrading.”

After he got back to Whitehorse, Ackland cancelled a subsequent medical appointment in Vancouver. “I can’t afford that kind of money,” he said.

Ackland said he’d like the Department of Health and Social Services to provide more support to patients to help them navigate stays in Vancouver.

“Why can they not sort of suggest or provide some information in terms of where you could stay that’s reasonable?” he said.

The medical travel program currently provides a $75 a day subsidy to patients and pays for their flights to and from Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary. An escort, usually a family member, can also be covered if medically necessary.

Spokesperson Pat Living said patients travelling to Alberta can also receive assistance getting to and from the airport and medical appointments.

And she said all patients should receive a booklet with information about medical travel, including suggestions of where to stay.

But Ackland said he was never offered any such information, even when he called the department.

Alison Freeman, president of the Yukon Medical Association, said it’s not unusual for patients, especially the elderly, to find the medical travel process confusing.

“It is challenging,” she said. “There’s people that don’t know how to book things online.”

She said she will sometimes book hotels for her patients, to make things a little easier.

But she doesn’t believe the government has a responsibility to provide more information to patients, though she said “it would be a nice thing to do.”

Freeman said the most common complaint she hears from her patients about medical travel is that the $75 a day doesn’t cover all their costs.

But she said the subsidy isn’t meant to pay for everything.

“I think we know as Yukoners that we live quite a distance from tertiary medical care, and so I think we can’t expect that every single expense is going to be paid for when we go down south,” she said. “We have a limited pool of money, and an unlimited need, essentially.”

However, she did say that some of her patients genuinely can’t afford to go to Vancouver, and the government could consider a needs assessment to look at how best to help those people.

One thing that might help, she said, is if fewer people requested to travel with a family member. She said it’s fair to ask for an escort if the illness is life-threatening, for instance, but she believes many people ask for escorts who don’t really need them.

“I think it’s an abuse of the system, and I think it’s extremely expensive.”

Carla Mangnus also has complaints about the cost of travelling to Vancouver. She says the $75 a day subsidy is barely enough to pay for food. But she has other concerns as well.

In December 2015, Mangnus was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable cancer. She’s travelled to Vancouver 10 times in the last year, but says chemotherapy and radiation are no longer options.

Mangnus recently heard about a new clinical trial in Edmonton that might extend her life, and hoped that the Yukon government would cover her travel. But she was told that the medical travel program doesn’t cover clinical trials, even though she says this is her last option.

Freeman said paying for clinical trials would be a slippery slope.

“You would have people going down to Mexico for really off-label, poorly designed studies,” she explained.

Mangnus recognizes that it might be difficult to know where to draw the line if the government started covering some clinical trials.

“But on the other hand, if it can extend my life, yes, I think the government should help me,” she said. She has now started an online fundraiser to help pay for her travel.

Other patients have concerns about the fairness of the medical travel policy.

Marilyn Hagerman said she was denied coverage when she tried to tie in a recent medical appointment in Vancouver with a vacation to Florida. She wanted to travel on from Vancouver to Florida on her own dime, and have the medical travel program pay for her return from Vancouver to Whitehorse in January. She said she would have covered any difference in the cost of the flight.

The medical travel policy allows the government to “deny the payment of medical travel expenses to any eligible person who arranges to take non-emergency medical treatment at a time when they were already scheduled to travel.”

But Hagerman said it’s common for senior bureaucrats to travel to conferences and then on to a vacation, with the government covering the work-related portion of the travel. She said she booked many such flights when she worked in government, and this should be no different.

“If a person can tie in two things together, it’s not costing the government any more money,” she said. “It’s so stupid. It’s just stupid.”

She believes the decision in her case was made arbitrarily, and she’d like to see the policy revised to make it clearer when the government should refuse coverage.

The Yukon government spent $12.7 million on medical travel in 2015-16.

Living didn’t say if there have been any discussions about reviewing the medical travel program. But the Yukon Party’s election platform did include commitments to create a pilot project to help Yukoners better navigate the program, and to review the medical travel policy.

The Liberal platform does not mention the medical travel program.

Contact Maura Forrest at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The new Yukon Liberal caucus poses for a photo during the swearing-in ceremony held on May 3. (Yukon Government/Submitted)
Liberal cabinet sworn in at legislature before house resumes on May 11

Newly elected MLA Jeremy Harper has been nominated as speaker.


Wyatt’s World for May 5, 2021.… Continue reading

Crystal Schick/Yukon News Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speak at a COVID-19 update press conference in Whitehorse on Nov. 19. They formally announced that as of Nov. 20, anyone entering the territory (including Yukoners returning home) would be required to self-isolate with the exception of critical service workers, those exercising treaty rights and those living in B.C. border towns
Vaccinated people won’t have to self-isolate in the Yukon after May 25

Restaurants and bars will also be able to return to full capacity at the end of the month.

An RV pulls into Wolf Creek Campground to enjoy the first weekend of camping season on April 30, 2021. John Tonin/Yukon News
Opening weekend of Yukon campgrounds a ‘definite success’

The territorial campgrounds opened on April 30. Wolf Creek was the busiest park seeing 95 per cent of sites filled.

The site of the Old Crow solar project photographed on Feb. 20. The Vuntut Gwitchin solar project was planned for completion last summer, but delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Old Crow is switching to solar

The first phase of the community’s solar array is already generating power.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
One new case of COVID-19 in the Yukon

Case number 82 is the territory’s only active case

Flood and fire risk and potential were discussed April 29. Yukoners were told to be prepared in the event of either a flood or a fire. Submitted Photo/B.C. Wildfire Service
Yukoners told to be prepared for floods and wildland fire season

Floods and fire personelle spoke to the current risks of both weather events in the coming months.

From left to right, Pascale Marceau and Eva Capozzola departed for Kluane National Park on April 12. The duo is the first all-woman expedition to summit Mt. Lucania. (Michael Schmidt/Icefield Discovery)
First all-woman team summits Mt. Lucania

“You have gifted us with a magical journey that we will forever treasure.”

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

Whitehorse goings-on for the week of April 26

The Yukon Department of Education in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. The department has announced new dates for the 2021/2022 school year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Yukon school dates set for 2021/22

The schedule shows classes starting on Aug. 23, 2021 for all Whitehorse schools and in some communities.

Letters to the editor.
Today’s mailbox: rent caps and vaccines

To Sandy Silver and Kate White Once again Kate White and her… Continue reading

Most Read