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Stuck with $20,000 medevac bill, man needs a hand, gets a kick

Sheldon Miller owes the territory $20,000 for a medical evacuation that doctors, nurses and administrators assured him he would not have to pay. This is plainly unfair, Yukon's ombudsman found after conducting a lengthy review of the matter.

Sheldon Miller owes the territory $20,000 for a medical evacuation that doctors, nurses and administrators assured him he would not have to pay.

This is plainly unfair, Yukon’s ombudsman found after conducting a lengthy review of the matter. She’s repeatedly asked Yukon’s health department to forgive Miller’s debt.

It won’t.

Miller is 53. He’s unemployed. His common-law wife works as a hostess at the Yukon Suspension Bridge. They have three young children, aged two, eight and nine.

“Why come after me?” he asks. “I don’t have any money.

“I probably never will unless I win the lottery.

“The chances of getting $20,000 from me are pretty slim.”

Make no mistake: this is not a story about government goofing up, of somebody slipping through the cracks of the system, unbeknown to those in charge.

Premier Dennis Fentie knows what his government is doing to Miller. So does Health Minister Glenn Hart.

They’ve responded with nothing but pat answers and political maneuvering.

Earlier this month, Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell asked Fentie in the legislature why he hadn’t dropped Miller’s bill.

Fentie didn’t answer. Instead, he spun the question around and made it sound like the real victims were Yukon’s civil servants, under attack by the opposition.

Fentie may think this is just another game. But it’s not for Miller. It’s his life.

A native of Digby, Nova Scotia, Miller spent his teens working in the kitchens of government icebreakers.

The ships took him to Canada’s Arctic. He took a shining to the vast beauty of the North and its good-natured people.

He eventually moved to the Northwest Territories and then to the Yukon, working as a cook for highway camps.

The trouble began in late June of 2005, when Miller was working at Ogilvie Camp on the Dempster Highway. His chest felt tight. It hurt.

He went to Whitehorse General Hospital. A doctor thought Miller may be about to experience a heart attack.

He recommended Miller be sent to Victoria for a complete heart diagnosis. Miller asked how much the flight would cost.

He wasn’t yet a Yukon resident. He was two days short of living in the territory for the required two months. This meant the territory wouldn’t pay for his flight.

Miller made it clear he had no money. At the time, he was bankrupt.

He was told to not worry about it. The NWT and Yukon governments would sort it out, several health staff all told him.

They were wrong.

It would only later become clear that the NWT doesn’t pay for medevacs in other jurisdictions, and the Yukon won’t pay for medevacs of non-residents, leaving Miller stuck with the bill.

In Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital, a doctor put a thin wire up Miller’s wrist to examine his arteries and heart. He walked away with a clean bill of health.

Then Miller tried to go home, and the problems really started.

Yukon’s health staff told Miller to phone when he was ready and he would be put on a flight.

But when he got through to somebody, he was told he’d better try the Northwest Territories government.

In the end, Miller needed to borrow money from a friend to buy an airline ticket home.

Then the bills began to arrive. They stated he owed nearly $20,000 for the medical evacuation and ambulance rides.

Another bill arrives each month. Each month, interest grows.

Had he known he’d been saddled with such debt, Miller says he would never have gotten on the plane in the first place.

But it’s too late now.

Miller isn’t alone. Yukon billed 27 patients for medevacs last year, according to the finance department. Of those, 10 invoices remain outstanding, worth $88,060.

Yukon’s ombudsman, Tracy-Anne McPhee, reviewed Miller’s case with a fine-toothed comb.

She interviewed doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. She pored over documents. She found Miller’s story checked out.

McPhee concluded the health department was “administratively negligent.” It had a duty to disclose to Miller he would have to pay for his evacuation. It failed to do so.

“Patients who are told ‘not to worry’ or that it will be ‘worked out’ and who then make a decision based on those reassurances are entitled to reply on that information,” she wrote.

She recommended the department change how it handles non-insured medevac patients. The department agreed.

Health staff now tell patients if they are expected to pay their travel costs.

But the department won’t drop Miller’s bill. Rules are rules, and “policy is applied consistently” to medevac patients.

McPhee objects that if nothing was wrong with how the territory treated Miller, why did it change the way it deals with medevac patients?

This implies the government screwed up, McPhee noted in a letter to cabinet.

She asked Hart, the health minister, to reconsider.

He replied in a letter that “a reasonable reading of the entire record” doesn’t support forgiving the debt.

The ombudsman can only make recommendations to government and table reports in the legislature. She’s done all that. Her powers are now exhausted.

With the ombudsman case over, the territory will likely send Miller’s file to collections. Next time he secures a highway camp contract, he may see his wages garnished.

If that happens, “I’ll just quit and go on welfare,” said Miller.

But that’s sure to hurt his dream of one day owning the home he’s lived in for the past three years in Copper Ridge.

Before, he and his family lived in a former drug-house on Jeckell Street. When they moved in, his wife found needles in a cupboard. Strung-out people would knock on their door out of habit.

It didn’t seem like a good neighbourhood to raise three young children.

Now they live in a nice, new house in a good neighbourhood. They’d hate to give it up.

But “living up there, rent’s not cheap,” he said.

Fentie likes to say his government combines a social conscience with sound economics. But, as Miller says, “telling and doing are two different things.”

They’ve taken a man who wants to work and raise a family in the Yukon and are kicking his feet out from beneath him, for no intelligible reason.

It’s hard to see the social conscience, or the economic sense, in that.

The territory plans to spend more than $1 billion this year.

Can you blame Miller for losing faith in politicians?

“I didn’t expect anything from those guys. They look out for their own, and line their own pockets,” he said.

“They don’t care about people like me.”

He phoned NDP Leader Toddy Hardy several times about his situation, he said. He never got a call back from him, either.

“After that I gave up on government. I won’t vote. I don’t think they’ll ever get a vote from me.”

“As far as I was concerned, I was lied to. There’s something definitely wrong. They shouldn’t treat people like tha t.”

“To do that to people, Jesus, it’s just not right.”

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

Contact John Thompson at