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Health minister has to go: Sahtu MLA
Demand for removal comes after Yakeleya says he was treated poorly during medical trip; Abernethy admits problems but says system works for most people

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Monday, September 21, 2015

Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya is calling for Health Minister Glen Abernethy to be replaced after his own experience with the NWT medical travel system, which he described as a "nightmare."

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Glen Abernethy: Health minister admits changes to medical travel policy are behind schedule but insists system is still working for vast majority.

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Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya hobbles across the tarmac on crutches on Sept. 11 at the Norman Wells airport after he was injured two days earlier .

After listening to medical horror stories from his constituents for years, he now has one of his own to tell. Yakeleya said he has been "living a nightmare" since plummeting four metres to the ground after a railing on his deck gave way at his home in Norman Wells earlier this month. He said it happened on Sept. 7 when he and his 13-year-old son Chase were doing some work around his home.

"We were leaning against the rail on the top deck when it gave way and we fell about 12 to 15 feet," said Yakeleya.

"We were actually both pretty lucky. I landed on my left side. I twisted my ankle ... my left knee and my back on the left side were all hurt. I am on crutches and I'm on medication to ease the pain but I'm still really sore."

The family eventually made their way to the health centre in Norman Wells after the accident.

"They didn't take X-rays of me or my son. They didn't even give me crutches," he said.

"We went back the next day - I couldn't even bend over. So they said they were going to send me out (to Yellowknife) the next day. The nurse never even asked if I needed an escort. She just sternly told me - you don't need an escort."

He got on the plane in Norman Wells with his wife, who paid her own airfare for the trip. Yakeleya landed in Yellowknife, where he said there was no one to meet him, so he and his wife took a taxi to Stanton Territorial Hospital and received yet another rude awakening.

"I went inside at emergency and the nurse said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'Did anybody call you from the Norman Wells health centre? I'm here because I fell and I came down here for X-rays.' They said nobody from the Norman Wells health centre notified them that I was coming. They had already sent their X-ray technician home for the day, so I sat there in pain at the hospital for a good three hours."

The technician was called back into work, X-rays were taken and Yakeleya said he eventually saw a doctor who told him there were no broken bones. That was when he was finally given crutches, he said.

"This caused a lot of stress on the family. My wife saw two of us lying on the ground, not knowing how badly we were hurt and the Norman Wells health centre did not request a non-medical escort," said Yakeleya.

Yakeleya's wife could theoretically be a non-medical escort, which would cover the cost of her flight.

The MLA arrived back in Norman Wells on Sept. 11 and he's been recuperating ever since.

He said this is the second non-medical escort issue he has heard about this month alone. He received a letter from an elder in Fort Good Hope who has severe arthritis and whose choice of a non-medical escort was denied.

In both cases, Yakeleya said he was told by Health Minister Glen Abernethy that it is not up to the minister to decide whether non-medical escorts - someone other than a doctor or nurse who can help patients with limited mobility as they travel - are warranted but Abernethy encouraged Yakeleya and the other patient to go back to the health-care provider to plead their case.

"It should be common sense that someone with a lower back injury ... cancer, a head injury or an elder should automatically have a non-medical escort," said Yakeleya. "I'm going to heal first and then I'm going to go back to work with my colleagues to look at the medical travel policy. I want to see how fast we can make changes to the policy such as a standard policy on non-medical escorts."

In an e-mail to News/North, Yakeleya called for the immediate replacement of the health minister and top managers at the Department of Health and Social Services. He is also calling for a training action plan for all front line workers to improve their level of service.

"If he'd been a good minister, their department wouldn't be in the mess it's in," Yakeleya stated. "They need to be reminded that it's the people who are the focus and not the system they serve. If we can find money for a low-water hydro situation or firefighting seasons, we can certainty find money to help elders and single parents with medical care."

Yakeleya said he expects to be back in the legislative assembly when the 17th assembly begins its final sitting on Sept. 29. Abernethy hosted a briefing at the legislative assembly on Sept. 17 to update MLAs on reforms to medical travel policies. He said despite the call for changes being made by the auditor general of Canada in 2011, it won't be before April of next year until the new policy is completed.

Abernethy said there are more than 13,000 medical travel patient cases each year in the NWT, costing the territorial government more than $30 million each year, some of which is covered by insurance. He added federal funding for the program, which has been more than $3 million a year in past years, has been slashed in half in the current fiscal year and could be gone completely next year.

News/North asked Abernethy to respond to Yakeleya's call for him to be replaced.

"There are processes for that. He hasn't said anything to me," the minister said.

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