Ottawa, Inuit talk about health money transfer

Ottawa wants to talk to Inuit about transferring control of aboriginal health benefits to regional Inuit organizations.


Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT – The federal department of health eventually wants to turn over responsibility of aboriginal health care to local groups as it revamps its aboriginal health benefits program.

Dr Jay Wortman, the director general of Health Canada’s Medical Services Branch, met this week with Inuit leaders from Labrador, Nunavik, Nunavut and the Western Arctic to discuss a new mandate for Ottawa’s Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program.

That program, the cornerstone of Indian and Inuit health spending, accounts for 52 per cent of the nearly $1 billion that Ottawa spends on aboriginal health care in Canada.

For the past several years, the federal government has been moving towards devolving responsibility for delivery of the program to Inuit groups.

Registered Indians and eligible Innu and Inuit, regardless of income or place of residence in Canada, qualify for NIHB benefits.

It’s a national program that provides health benefits above and beyond those offered by territorial and provincial health insurance programs.

The program pays for prescription drugs, medical supplies and equipment, dental and eye care, mental health, and medical transportation

The program was introduced in 1979 and was heavily criticized by the Auditor General of Canada in 1993. Since then, Health Canada has been looking at ways of revamping the program.

The Assembly of First Nations – the national organization for Canada’s treaty and status Indians – has been the driving force for years in getting Health Canada, in particular its Medical Services Branch (MSB) involved in discussions around proposed changes to the program.

Inuit have only recently been participating in discussions over the turnover of NIHB programs to aboriginal people.

“We’re way behind in terms of being involved,” Inuvialuit leader Nellie Cournoyea told delegates at an NIHB workshop in Iqaluit this week.

To date, Inuit have only been involved in a cursory way.

In June, 1995, after more than two years of nation-wide consultation with southern aboriginal groups, Ottawa opened up involvement in the process to Inuit and First Nations groups in the North. Only one information session was held – in Labrador.

“I think there’s some misunderstanding about how involved we were,” a Labrador Inuit Association representative told delegates. “We were involved solely by the invitation of AFN and we were not representing all the Inuit of Canada.”

Consultation was completed last June, however the official report has yet to be distributed publicly. A few northern leaders were given draft copies in September.

Despite this delay, however, Inuit groups are being given five months – an extension of an earlier deadline – to respond to the report presented at the meeting this week. The report outlines a draft framework for a new mandate for the NIHB system.

“ITC (Inuit Tapirisat of Canada) doesn’t have the financial or human resources to start consultations, so five months… it’s too short,” said the national Inuit organization’s president, Okalik Eegeesiak.

“All the terms and conditions (in the report) are subject to discussions during the workshop,” Wortman said. “That’s what the framework document is all about.”

Wortman said Ottawa wants to finish a framework agreement for health transfers by April 1, 1998, after which negotiations on specific transfers will start.

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