First Nations Health Care Needs 'Drastic Change,' Doctor Tells Committee

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OTTAWA — The system used to deliver medical services to First Nations introduces unnecessary barriers to care and often prevents doctors from doing their jobs, an Ontario physician bluntly told a parliamentary committee on Thursday.

Dr. Michael Kirlew, a doctor based in Sioux Lookout, Ont., urged the federal government to take "drastic change" to save lives.

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Ontario Regional Chief Isidore Day (left) and Grand Chief Nishnawbe Aski Nation Alvin Fiddler (right) speak with Sol Mamakwa, health advisor for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, as they wait to appear at a Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The longer we wait, the more people will die," Kirlew said.

"The more time that we wait, the more children will die. I appeal to you today, not as politicians, not as members of political parties ... let's return the humanity to this process. This process needs that humanity."

Kirlew, who travels to communities near Sioux Lookout to provide care, said First Nations people living on reserve receive a standard of health care that is far inferior to what other people get.

"The more time that we wait, the more children will die."

"Not just a little inferior — far inferior," he said.

"Imagine a young person that breaks their leg — they come into the clinic and their leg is on a virtual right angle and you do not have adequate supplies of the pain medication that they need and it takes nine and half hours for that medevac to come in and that entire time, because that supply of morphine is not there in sufficient qualities, you hear that person screaming the entire time. That is the reality."

Aboriginal leaders also painted a picture of dire and deadly conditions on reserves during their testimony and pleaded for the government to reform the medical benefit system.

Health Canada's non-insured health benefits program is a system that provides coverage for claims for a specified range of drugs, dental care, vision care, medical supplies and equipment, mental health counselling and medical transportation for eligible First Nations and Inuit.

First Nation leaders say system is flawed

First Nations leaders, including Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, also said the system as deeply flawed.

His organization, which represents northern Ontario communities, declared a public health emergency in February.

"It's not based on the needs of our communities," Fiddler said after the meeting.

"It is based on a formula that is almost 40 years old and this was confirmed by the auditor general of Canada last year."

Yvonne Jones, the parliamentary secretary to Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, said the Liberal government is looking to reform the program.

"We know that there are significant issues around the non-insured health benefit program," she said in an interview. "We also know there are significant issues around how the system governs itself ... we have been reviewing those issues."

Change has to happen, she added.

"If we are actually going to have a nation-to-nation process that is going to work in this country, then we need to make changes from the systemic problems that we've seen over and over in the past,'' she said.

Emergency debate on Attawapiskat

The committee hearing follows an emergency debate in the Commons earlier this week about the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat First Nation.

The debate was called at the request of NDP indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus.

Canada didn't arrive at a crisis by accident, Angus said during question period on Thursday, noting the government routinely denies access to medical services.

Health Minister Jane Philpott said 18 mental health workers have been sent to Attawapiskat to help with the crisis.

The community's leaders declared a state of emergency on Saturday, citing 11 suicide attempts so far in the month of April and 28 recorded attempts in March.

On Monday, officials thwarted what they called a suicide pact by 13 young aboriginal people on the reserve, including a nine-year-old.

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