Complaints over medical travellers being bumped from flights in Canada’s N.W.T.

Sahtú MLA Paulie Chinna, second from right, sits at a table during the Sahtu Assembly in Norman Wells in August. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

A regional airline manager says the problem is caused by pilot shortages and an increase in travel

Sahtú leaders heard a litany of medical travel complaints during the Sahtu Assembly in Norman Wells, N.W.T. last week.

Janet Bayha, vice-president of the Tulita Land & Financial Corporation, told the assembly that people in her community frequently miss planes because Medical Travel is “overbooking” flights.

“So a lot of members are missing their appointments in Yellowknife and elsewhere,” she said.

Medical travel is an office within the N.W.T.’s Health and Social Services Authority, providing flights and accommodations to people that need to travel out of their communities to access various healthcare treatments.

Bayha said that missed flights, leading to missed appointments, have been an ongoing problem for the past couple of months.

Paulie Chinna, Sahtú MLA and housing minister, shared similar concerns at the meeting. She said that medical travel complaints make up the majority of issues that come across her desk.

‘Influx of medical travel’ due to pandemic 

Kyle Newhook, a North-Wright Airways operations manager and pilot, said medical travel has been an issue.

North-Wright Airways is one of several regional airlines in the North used for medical travel.

Newhook frequently handles complaints from customers using the service, and he says that there seems to be a “lack of communication” between NTHSSA employees and their clients.

He explained that NTHSSA employees are adding people to waitlists on flights that are already full, but that clients often arrive at the airport thinking they have seats.

“They’re on the waitlist because that’s as it was booked by medical travel, and it seems like that information is not being disseminated to those passengers,” said Newhook.

He advises these customers go to the medical travel office with their complaints.

“They’re the ones booking the flights,” he said.

Pilot and other staffing shortages

Newhook said that North-Wright and other airlines throughout the North have been experiencing an “influx of medical travel” for the last few months.

“I have to assume that’s because for the last two plus years, the hospital hasn’t been able to meet their regularly scheduled patients,” he said.

“I believe this is a situation of the hospital trying to play catch up.”

Newhook thinks overbooked flights are due to pilot and other staffing shortages, compounded by an overall increase in travel since pandemic restrictions lifted.

He claims that North-Wright has not been cancelling flights and has scheduled additional flights, when possible.

“But even that has been tough with the pilot shortage, with the COVID situation, and just overall staff shortages,” he said.

Appointments rescheduled months later 

Mandy Day, the elders community worker for the Inuvik Community Corporation, also spoke with CBC News about medical travel.

Back in May, Day wrote a letter to both of Inuvik’s MLAs, Diane Archie and Lesa Semmler, on medical travel concerns that had been brought up during an annual board meeting.

The letter brought up concerns regarding the medical travel office not properly booking elders into hotel accommodations, delivering “cold, soggy food,” and denying medical escorts.

Day told CBC News that issues with flights are also common.

“It happens often, not only with the elders but with other community members as well,” she said.

Day personally experienced the problem earlier this summer, when she needed to travel as a medical escort for her minor-aged daughter’s medical appointment in Edmonton.

She said she received very little notice about the July appointment but believes the flight had been booked through Canadian North.

“They had mentioned to me that I would only find out at noon if I would be able to get on the plane,” she said.

Day waited for the flight at the airport but was unable to get off the waitlist.

“The plane was full, and I was bumped,” she said.

Her daughter’s new appointment is now scheduled for September.

In an email response, Health and Social Services spokesperson Alexander Keefe wrote that the department realizes that flights have been “full more frequently” for the past few months.

“While booking a non-confirmed ticket is not the preferred option, it does offer an additional opportunity for the patient to travel,” Keefe said.

He acknowledged that there have been times when medical travel patients have been unaware of being waitlisted, but says all travellers get a flight itinerary that tells them their flight status.

“We are working on improving communications so the ticket status is better understood.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Canadian paramedic shortage could put hitch in N.W.T. recruitment plan, CBC News

Greenland: Greenland to reduce services amidst staffing shortages in health care system, Eye on the Arctic

Emma Grunwald, CBC News

Emma Grunwald is a reporter with CBC News in Yellowknife.

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