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Pat Cullen: Social workers should be better advocates

Social workers should act as better advocates for the people they serve.

Wanda and Gene White of Broad Cove, Conception Bay, a couple in late middle-age, need an advocate and need one badly. They are both disabled and live on income support.

Wanda has a degenerative neurological disorder called Friedreich’s ataxia. It has robbed her of her ability to speak clearly and left her in a wheelchair.

She can only communicate with me by tapping out messages on a computer. Her osteoporosis is so severe that even turning in her bed could cause a bone to break. She has other health issues including lung problems and ulcers.

The Whites live and pay bills, excluding a power bill which gives them a mere two hours of heat a day, on roughly $370 every two weeks.

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Wanda is unable to see her doctors when she needs because she can only travel by taxi, a luxury her budget will not allow. She last saw an osteoporosis specialist in St. John’s five years ago. She is supposed to see that specialist every six months, but she can’t afford to get to the city and back.

Visits to her family doctor in Old Perlican are also sporadic, usually undertaken when a friend gives her a lift. The family doctor monitors her neurological disorder and other conditions, so visits to him should be more than haphazard, but unfortunately her financial position will not allow her to do better. The office of Steve Crocker, her MHA, has been made aware of the problem and I can only hope some action will be taken.

When a person experiences nothing but heartbreak and failure, it is easy to lose hope. Wanda White is losing hope and that loss of hope is costing her money she doesn’t have.

She pays $22 a month for an over-the-counter calcium supplement to help with her osteoporosis. An email sent to me from the department of Health and Community Services said government could pay for this, if her doctor authorized it. It seems like a simple solution but only time will tell if it’s as simple as the government spokesperson makes it sound.

Wanda has apparently never pursued it. She accepted the stipulation of Budget 2016 and the shocking statements that followed. Most over-the-counter medications were not to be covered, even with a doctor’s prescription. That included hers. She was probably too worn out to do any follow up.

She also needs considerable dental work. She has no bottom dentures and her upper plate is held together by a denture adhesive. This means she has difficulty chewing which causes digestive problems, her ulcers are becoming more irritated and the cost of the adhesive takes another $25 each month from a paltry income-support cheque. It is just one more difficulty she would not have to face if she had someone to speak on her behalf.

An arrangement between the department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour and Newfoundland Power, with the Whites’ permission, took $150 a month from their cheque as payment toward heat and light. It was reduced a few weeks ago to $100 monthly.

The Whites are on an equal payment plan with the power company. The $150 meant they could turn on the heat in their home for two hours a day. According to Wanda, the reduced payment of $100 would mean no heat at all.

In an email, she wrote, “$100 is less than $150. The only way I can afford that two hours per day is by having that extra $50 every month. $100 a month would mean no heat at all, just lights.”

With a bit of lobbying the decision was reversed and the original payment of $150 reinstated. So the Whites can keep their meagre heat ration. It will still mean they’ll be living in the cold and sleeping in the cold, but this winter they will at least have that measly bit of warmth.

A raft of phone calls and emails were sent over the past few weeks explaining their situation. Every government department that can help them, every institution from their MHA’s office to Legal Aid is now aware of their circumstances.

But as this raft of emails and phone calls are sent and made, I wonder where is their social worker? Where is that person who should take more interest in them and advocate for them?

Wanda White is a tenacious woman, a quality that serves her well as she tries to cut through a mass of red tape. But she is also a sick woman battling a bureaucracy that seems stacked against her, for it is doing little to help her and her disabled husband.

It should not be this way. The Whites simply want to be treated fairly. And fairness for them is long overdue.

Pat Cullen is a journalist and who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or

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