Prenatal health program is denied territorial funding

The Yukon Department of Health and Social Services says there isn't an extra $387,000 in the budget to help a program used by new moms across the territory.

The Yukon Department of Health and Social Services says there isn’t an extra $387,000 in the budget to help a program used by new moms across the territory.

The Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program (CPNP) funds groups around Canada designed to help moms and babies learn about healthy eating and healthy living.

According to local program staff, the Yukon is the only jurisdiction in the country that doesn’t add to the federal money. The health department says it has no intention of starting now.

That leaves co-ordinator Marusia Heney unsure of what some of the programs will look like in the near future.

In the Yukon there are eight CPNP programs

– usually called Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies – scattered around the territory. Of the eight, three are able to dip into multiple federal pots to increase their budgets.

But five programs – the ones based out of the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre, the Teen Parent Centre, Les EssentiElles, Carcross and Dawson City – rely exclusively on CPNP money.

That federal money hasn’t increased since the programs began, either in 1995 or 2001. It is only guaranteed until March 2017.

While the dollars have remained the same, the cost of running the free programs has not, said Heney, who manages the Victoria Faulkner program.

Representatives from the programs met with health minister Doug Graham hoping the Yukon government would match their current budget with territorial money.

That’s a total of $387,000 a year for all five programs. The department said no.

“CPNP, while unquestionably valuable, is one of many groups that regularly approach government for financial assistance, and hard decisions have to be made about the best use of our limited resources,” said spokesperson Marcelle Dube in an email.

Graham was not available for an interview to provide an explanation.

CPNP programs are available to moms from the moment they realize they’re pregnant until their baby turns one.

They’re all designed to support families by providing things like nutritious meals, prenatal vitamin supplements, and other health-related help. Each program is tailored specifically to the community it serves.

At the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre the moms meet twice a week to eat together. They get monthly visits from a public health nurse and help from a dietitian. There are cooking classes and recipes offered along side prenatal vitamins. An alcohol and drug services counsellor also comes by once a month.

“We’ve had moms say to us, ‘When I started the program I didn’t like vegetables, now I actually cook with them,’” Heney said. “Really exciting stuff like that where people are making huge changes in terms of what they’re consuming.”

Heney has been at her job for three years. Interest in the program has grown, but so have the costs.

“The cost of groceries has gone up 22.2 per cent in the last five years. The birth rate has gone up from 355 in 2007 to 428 births in 2012,” Heney said.

Last year Yukon projects reached 419 pregnant women and new mothers, the groups say.

That would suggest it’s reaching a high percentage of the population.

According to the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, 391 babies were born in the territory last year.

“That’s a huge reach,” Heney said. “We’re doing all of those preventative things. So we’re talking about FASD, we’re talking about reducing alcohol when you’re breast-feeding, which people don’t talk about otherwise. We’re talking about attachment, connecting with your baby….It’s not just nutrition, it encompasses social supports.”

The Victoria Faulkner program has about 45 moms registered. It averages 10 moms coming to drop-in lunch on Mondays and 15 to 18 moms on Fridays. All staff can spend is $100 a week on food.

“That’s the reality of what we’re looking at,” Heney said.

When she started running the program three years ago, she would be able to pay for swimming lessons for 10 moms and babies two or three times a year. That cost about $300.

The cost of lessons has gone up every year since. Last year only eight moms could participate. This year it will be even less.

No new money in the budget means no new money to pay staff, which leads to a high staff turnover.

About 38 people have been trained to be program co-ordinators in eight programs not funded through First Nations since 2005.

“If you want to retain qualified staff you have to pay them,” Heney said.

A local dietician is currently funded for 108 hours of support for all eight programs from September to June.

“Because pregnant women don’t have needs in the summer, right?” Heney said sarcastically.

The programs help moms prepare for babies and manage the stress after having a child, Heney said.

“So many women experience post-partum depression and post-partum mood disorders that this is a great way for us to help reduce some of those things because they’re already part of a support group,” she said.

Moms who have gone through the program sing its praises. Many of them gathered last week in Shipyards Park as part of an annual reunion.

“It’s an amazing program just for getting out of the house and being around other parents with kids the same age, going through the same thing,” said Christine Greff, while her nine-month-old son Loki plays.

Greff started when she was seven months pregnant. Loki is her first baby. She calls the program “a place where you know you can open up safely.”

“I think it would be a great loss if they couldn’t fund what they fund,” she said. “He got to do his first swimming lessons through them too, at three months old. The earlier kids get in the water the better it is. Just little things like that really help out. I couldn’t afford to put him in lessons. Not right now. Especially being on mat-leave.”

Tiffany Steele and her 16-month-old daughter Eastyn-Lee also used the Victoria Faulkner program.

“They bring in the health nurse, they bring in the dietician. I really enjoyed getting to talk to them and learn a lot of stuff that I never knew,” Steele said.

She said she would like to see the program continue and would come back if she ever had a second child.

“It keeps you sane sometimes getting out of the house. You get that break. The women who run it are so great.”

Even the federal government funding is only guaranteed until March 2017.

Without any additional funding, something will have to give soon, Heney said.

“We’re going to have to figure out, do we cut the lunches that we offer, do we not offer vitamins, do we only do lunch once a week, or what?”

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