Elaine Learning-Hinks has always been proud to call Labrador home. Even though she's moved away over the years, she always felt the call of the Big Land and ended up coming back, despite the challenges of living in a remote area.
But now, Learning-Hinks and her husband, Art Hinks, are not sure they can continue living in Labrador much longer. The constant need to fly to St. Anthony or St. John's for medical appointments is draining their finances quickly, and moving somewhere with more medical resources may be their best option.
“It's definitely created strain. We're trying to get Katie (our daughter) through school... It's created incredible strain to the point where we've considered leaving," says Learning-Hinks.
“Now that we're faced with these medical issues, we talk about (moving) every other day.”
Learning-Hinks frequently travels from her home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to St. John's for neurological appointments. Her husband has his own medical issues that require travel to Newfoundland, where medical specialists are available. According to Learning-Hinks, she and her husband made seven trips to either St. Anthony or St. John's in 2018.
Flying out of Labrador is extremely expensive, no matter the destination. On average, Learning-Hinks said, it costs $1,600 for the two of them to fly round trip for an appointment in St. Anthony. They often have to travel together, as either she or her husband require a medical escort for certain appointments.
“I wouldn't be able to say how much we spent (last year), but it's a lot of money; several thousand,” said Learning-Hinks.
‘Where would we move?’
It was only a couple of years ago that medical travel wasn't such a strain for the family. When Art Hinks worked for the federal government, their medical travel costs were covered under an isolated post allowance. Now, though, both Learning-Hinks and her husband are retired, and their only source of relief is the province's Medical Travel Assistance Program (MTAP). The program covers some, but not all, expenses for people who need to travel for medical reasons.
In Labrador, people can receive full reimbursement for travel and accommodations up to $1,000. Any amount between $1,000 and $3,000 receives 50 per cent coverage by MTAP, while anything over $3,000 receives 75 per cent coverage.
Labrador residents who don't have money for airfare upfront can apply to get $1,000 in advance of a medical appointment.
For Hinks and her husband, the program has helped but still leaves them paying out of pocket for required medical travel. On top of the expense, Learning-Hinks recently had to wait more than three months to receive her reimbursement.
The financial and emotional strain has left the couple contemplating where they'll be in the future.
“Where would we move? Even in this province, there's an aging population,” said Learning-Hinks.
"The older people get, the more they require healthcare services. And there already seems to be a strain. The whole system seems to be strained.”
Leaving Labrador, she said, is not something she wants to do.
“I don't want to leave Labrador. This is home. This is where we raised our daughter...I've left before and always wanted to come back,” she said.
'A great challenge'
Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper says he is well aware of the issues Labradorians are having with the expense of medical travel. Trimper says his constituency office gets at least one inquiry a day from someone who needs to make an MTAP application. Last summer, there was one day where his office helped process 10 applications.
“The strategy of delivering health care in this province is a great challenge because...if you look at Labrador's situation, six per cent of the population (lives) in a huge geography,” said Trimper.
“The closer you get to areas like St. John's and the North East Avalon, obviously you have a concentration of people... that it can allow one to deliver health care services much like you would throughout southern Canada. But west of the overpass, and certainly in Labrador, it's a great challenge.”
Trimper is hoping this spring's provincial budget will deliver some improvements to MTAP. He thinks a better long-term solution is to attract specialists to Labrador and keep them there.
“We need to attract specialists to be here. There are vacancies available right now; people can walk right in here and set up shop if they're willing to come,” said Trimper.
Trimper said Labrador Grenfell Health is looking to bring in two psychiatrists in Labrador. Right now, psychiatrists are flown into Labrador to do appointments.
Trimper believes there are certain procedures that should be performed in Labrador because it makes more sense, both financially and logistically, than flying the patients to the island.
He points to the injections for macular degeneration as an example. Macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of vision loss in people 60 years of age and older.
Trimper has constituents who need to fly out of Labrador every 45 days for an injection that takes about 10 minutes to complete.
“I would love to have an opportunity to have that specialist, if they're not going to reside here, at least come in here,” said Trimper.
“One can easily see the financial advantage of either having the specialist come in, or the specialist even reside here.”