08/18/2016 05:41 EDT | Updated 08/19/2016 07:59 EDT

Charlie Angus: Jane Philpott's Limo Tab Shows 'Disconnect' On Indigenous Health Travel

"This is a department that is ruthless in terms of nickel and diming the health needs of indigenous people."

An NDP member of Parliament who represents indigenous people in remote communities says Health Minister Jane Philpott's $1,700 limo bill reveals a troubling "disconnect" in her department.

Charlie Angus told The Huffington Post Canada Wednesday he was surprised Philpott's "whopping" tab, racked up in one day, was approved Health Canada. After all, he says, a lot of his time is spent dealing with constituents who are denied "the most basic medical treatments" by Health Canada bureaucrats.

"This is a department that is ruthless in terms of nickel and diming the health needs of indigenous people," he said in an interview.

NDP MP Charlie Angus and Health Minister Jane Philpott. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

"And yet they don't balk at $1,700-a-day limo rides around Toronto. Something's seriously wrong here."

Health Canada's non-insured health benefits program provides eligible First Nations and Inuit medical transportation for services not available in their communities. The program also covers a range of drugs, medical supplies, dental care, vision care, and mental health counselling.

Yet the northern Ontario MP says constituents in isolated, fly-in areas often see their travel requests for medically-necessary treatments or screenings ordered by doctors turned down by Health Canada.

RELATED:Health Minister To Reimburse Taxpayers For Limo Service

Angus pointed to examples of a woman who was denied travel for a breast cancer screening exam, a toddler left without an audiology test, and young people in suicidal situations denied flights out of remote communities to seek mental health services.

On Wednesday, Angus shared a video of testimony an Ontario physician and indigenous leader delivered to the standing committee on Aboriginal Affairs and northern development in April.

Dr. Michael Kirlew, who works with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority in Ontario, told the group at the time that First Nations individuals on reserve receive "far inferior" health care than other Canadians.

Kirlew passionately took aim at Health Canada's non-insured health benefit program, saying unregistered children are routinely being denied transportation to seek medical help.

'Children are being left behind'

"Children are being left behind," Kirlew said. "I have no way of getting children that I see out for access to developmental services, essential services such as speech language pathology or occupational therapy. I am very limited in what I can do because non-insured does not pay for the travel out."

Kirlew also noted that "compassionate travel" — which allows a relative to accompany someone who is dying or pregnant — is listed as the first exclusion for medical transportation.

"Compassion is not something we should inoculate our health care system against," he said. "When we start losing our compassion, we lose our humanity. People are suffering and children are dying every single day."

“I think the practice of denying pregnant women escorts needs to stop immediately.”

Kirlew testified the biggest concern among pregnant women in Sioux Lookout is whether or not they will have an escort, someone to hold their hand, when they deliver their babies.

"I think the practice of denying pregnant women escorts needs to stop immediately," he said. "There is no basis for that in medical science, in medical theory, or even in basic human decency."

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day also testified that the suicide of a 10-year-old boy from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation was a "direct result of travel cuts" that meant the child couldn't get mental health services. Nishnawbe Aski Nation declared a public health emergency last February.

"There just was no money to take care of this boy," Day said.

Teen left without advocate

Angus says a 17-year-old constituent recently had an emergency C-section and was flown from a James Bay fly-in community to Kingston, Ont.

"They were going to discharge her and give her a bus ticket to Thunder Bay, when she doesn't live within 1,000-km of Thunder Bay and the only way she can get home is on a plane," he said.

The young woman did not have an advocate with her and Angus said he intervened to sort out her travel.

'Wake-up call'

Angus says he has "enormous" respect for Philpott and personally likes her quite a bit. He says while New Democrats aren't asking her to take the bus or stay in crummy motels while fulfilling her duties, Philpott should exercise better judgment.

On Wednesday, Philpott announced she would reimburse taxpayers just over $3,700 for her travel, which includes the $1,708 tab and a separate bill of $1,994 both paid to a Toronto-based company owned by a Liberal supporter.

While conceding there are a lot of "gotcha moments" in politics, Angus says he's not out for political blood. He hopes the episode will be a "wake-up call" for Philpott and a message to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who pledged to do things differently when it comes to the challenges faced by indigenous people.

"It's a new government," Angus said. "I think they can do better."

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With a file from The Canadian Press


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