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MLA defends health minister
Jane Groenewegen says calls from Sahtu MLA for health minister to be replaced are 'inappropriate'

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Monday, September 28, 2015

Former health minister Jane Groenewegen has come to the defense of current health minister Glen Abernethy after Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya called for him to be replaced last week.

The demand for his removal came after Yakeleya described his experience with the NWT health-care system was horrendous. The MLA said he had problems both with his treatment and his medical travel to Yellowknife after he fell from a deck at his home in Norman Wells.

"The suggestion that Mr. Abernethy should step down as health minister over this particular instance that Mr. Yakeleya has experienced first-hand or other issues with medical travel is very inappropriate," said Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen, who herself resigned as health minister in 2001. "I have had a chance to observe Mr. Abernethy in his role as health and social services minister ... and I believe he has done an amazing job. It is not an easy department. It is not possible to get absolutely everything right. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than it has been? I believe it is."

Groenewegen said she did not want to diminish Yakeleya's concerns but added his proposed solution of taking out the health minister is not the right one.

Groenewegen said her opinion of Abernethy's performance comes from first-hand experience as she sits on the standing committee on social programs, which oversees Abernethy's Department of Health and Social Services portfolio.

The chair of that standing committee, Inuvik Boot Lake MLA Alfred Moses, said the issue of medical travel is a complex one. He said he had not heard first-hand about the problems Yakeleya had with the program, specifically that he wasn't granted a non-medical escort despite the fact he had an injured back and said he was barely mobile.

"Medical travel is a difficult policy when we are dealing with some of out most vulnerable and trying to get our clients the best care and treatment that they have the right to," Moses said. "We have a high staff turnover in a lot of the regions and there are capacity issues in some of the regions where a lot of positions aren't filled. The work that the committee and the department has done on emerging priorities like mental health and addictions has meant that a lot more work responsibility has been put on the department to fix other programs and services."

Yakeleya pointed out that the auditor general of Canada, back in 2011, issued a report calling for the modernization of medical travel in the NWT. During a briefing at the legislative assembly on Sept. 17, Abernethy revealed that work on upgrading the medical travel policy was continuing but that a final report would not be tabled until April of next year, meaning it will not be dealt with by the 17th legislative assembly and will in fact have been on the drawing board for close to five years when it is completed.

"It's quite complicated and it's more than just escorts. It's a whole process issue and we have to make sure we get it right. We have had some challenges with staff turnover and challenges with other priorities that have popped up," the minister said.

Abernethy took over the health and social services portfolio from Tom Beaulieu in October of 2013.

Yakeleya was particularly upset that Abernethy refused to override the decision of a nurse in Norman Wells who he said told him that he did not need a non-medical escort. That meant Yakeleya's wife had to pay for her airfare to Yellowknife and back in order to assist him. Yakeleya said his back was too sore to carry his luggage and that he needed his wife to be a non-medical escort.

Abernethy told him he should have plead his case to the health-care worker in Norman Wells before he left for Yellowknife. There is no formal process to appeal a decision denying a non-medical escort. Abernethy maintained that he is not a health-care professional and therefore is not qualified to overrule a decision made by a health-care worker.

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