A graphic from a series of GNWT illustrations depicting changes to a benefits program.
The NWT government will rewrite materials explaining proposed changes to some health benefits and has extended the deadline for feedback.
The territory is proposing changes to the benefits system that covers people who can’t access health coverage through work or other forms of government insurance.
Estimating that 2,200 NWT residents have no access to benefits, the territory says its proposal “will ensure all residents in need of health benefits can get them.”
But some residents say the territory has glossed over the way its proposal, which eliminates the Specified Disease Conditions program, would require that some people with serious existing conditions pay out of pocket before benefits kick in.
Health minister Julie Green told Cabin Radio residents now have until November 4 to comment, a change from the original mid-October deadline.
And while she defended the proposed changes, the minister said she would commit to ensuring an explainer for residents makes clear that some people will pay more than they do now.
“What we are looking at is making the system more equitable,” said Green.
“If you’re a person who earns the average income in the NWT, which is $93,000 a year, and you receive drugs for one of the specified conditions free of charge, you can still obtain those drugs, but there will be a co-pay. There’s also a cap, so that once you have paid a certain amount, you don’t have to pay any more.
“What we’re trying to do is to use income testing to make this system more equitable, and also to stop tying coverage to specific conditions, which haven’t been updated in 34 years. There are new conditions and we need to consider how we can help people who have those new conditions access the help they need.”
(Where the minister’s $93,000 figure comes from is not clear. While the average salary for an NWT government worker was around the $94,000 mark in 2017, the NWT Bureau of Statistics states the average income from employment for an NWT resident in 2020 was $67,202. In the 2021 census, the median income in the territory – the one in the middle if you strung everyone’s income out in a line – was $56,800.)
Documents setting out the territory’s proposed changes to health benefits have been criticized for focusing on areas in which people will benefit from the proposal, without setting out any examples of people who would have to pay more than they do now.
Some people who have conditions listed in the Specified Disease Conditions program say they’ll lose out in the new system because treatments previously covered in full will now require them to get health insurance – which can be expensive if you have an existing condition – and pay premiums and co-payments until they reach a certain threshold, after which some help with costs will be provided.
“I’m not sure if it was intentional or just misguided,” said Johnson, “but they really did not explain to people who are in that current schedule of pre-existing conditions that they would be potentially losing their benefits.
“If you’re going to draw little cartoons to explain it, maybe you should draw the one where the guy making $45,000, currently holding on to his job and getting cancer treatment, is about to lose his coverage.”
Green said she was “sorry if that is not clear” and added “it is something we can go back and address.” Health officials including Green have said Johnson’s cancer example is wrong – cancer treatment is fully covered in the NWT, they say – but acknowledge the MLA’s example could apply to people with some other conditions.
“We’ve extended the comment period to November 4,” the minister said. “That’s something that can be rewritten and offered again to the public, to ensure that it’s more understandable.”
Asked why the NWT cannot provide benefits to the 2,200 people who lacked them without reducing coverage for others, Green said the territory simply does not have the money.
“Our health system has a $190-million deficit that is increasing by about 20 percent a year. At some point we have to stop giving things away to people who can afford them, and this is that moment,” the minister said.
“If you earn the average income in the NWT, which is $93,468 [again, the source for this figure is not clear and it doesn’t match data from the NWT Bureau of Statistics], you are going to have to pay a $2,100 co-pay to access your meds, to a maximum of $2,900. And after that, the government will pick up the rest of the cost.
“This is what happens everywhere else in the country, except here. So instead of having a few people who are entitled to the Cadillac service, we’re going to try to make it more equitable.”