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Hope Air offers help to low-income patients who must travel far for care

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Written by Paul Taylor

Question:  I live in northern Ontario and I have to make numerous trips to Toronto for ongoing medical treatments.  Of course, my health-care bills are all covered, but I pay for my own transportation and accommodation. I make minimum wage and this is a lot of money for me. What am I supposed to do?

Answer:  The Ontario Government provides grants to people who need to travel long distances to receive medical care.  However, patients usually have to pay up front and wait for their grant applications to be processed before being reimbursed. And, in most cases, the money they get back from the province doesn’t cover the full amount of their expenses.

So, people of limited means often rely on family or friends – or go into debt.

But there is another option – Hope Air. It’s a registered charity that arranges free flights and other transportation supports for those who are in financial need.

“We are the only national charity in Canada that does this,” says Doug Keller-Hobson, Chief Executive Officer of Hope Air, which was established in 1986.

It books seats on commercial airlines, enabling patients to get to and from their medical appointments. About 20 per cent of the flights are donated by the airlines. The rest are paid for with funds raised by the charity. In some cases, volunteer pilots who have their own planes will transport patients.

Hope Air also offers free ferry and Confederation Bridge passes to low-income residents of Prince Edward Island.

“We have delivered about 147,000 free travel arrangements in the 33 years we’ve been in existence,” says Mr. Keller-Hobson

Although Hope Air has traditionally focused on transportation, it recently began providing accommodation through a new arrangement with Airbnb.

It’s part of Airbnb’s “Open Homes” program, in which people make their places available at no charge to needy individuals requiring short-term accommodation. The company has also given Hope Air an initial grant of $260,000 so it can book Airbnb stays on behalf of patients or their family members, says Alex Dagg, director of public policy at Airbnb Canada.

Tammy Morrissey, a cancer patient from St. John’s, Newfoundland, is one of the first people to get free Airbnb lodging from Hope Air.

She was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer called ocular melanoma after a tumour was found behind her right eye in 2015.  “It’s so rare that it isn’t treated in my province,” she explains.

So, Ms. Morrissey has made about a dozen trips to Toronto to be cared for by a team of cancer specialists at Princess Margaret Hospital. On each of those trips, Hope Air covered her plane ticket, although she usually paid her own hotel bill.

But last August, when she contacted Hope Air to request a flight for her next follow-up appointment, Ms. Morrissey was asked if she also wanted free accommodation from Airbnb.

“Obviously, I said yes,” she recalls. “The Airbnb was just a five-minute walk from the hospital. That was fantastic.”

Not having to worry about the cost of accommodation has removed a huge financial burden from her shoulders.  “Now, I can just concentrate on my appointments,” she says.

For people such as Ms. Morrissey who are living on a low income, distance and travel expenses can be major barriers to accessing medical care, says Mr. Keller-Hobson.

“There is a real need for affordable accommodation,” says Anne Hayward, a social worker at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

And that need also affects the loved ones who accompany patients seeking care far from home. “Sometimes we find out after that family members have slept in their cars because they weren’t able to afford a hotel.”

It’s worth noting that there are numerous charities offering various forms of help, but many of them are focused on specific diseases or age groups.

“Quite frankly, we need a Ronald McDonald House for grown-ups,” says Ms. Hayward, referring to the lodgings available to families with seriously ill children.

Hope Air, which accepts patients and families regardless of medical condition or age, now fills that gap.

Without Hope Air, some patients might skip essential medical care, says Dr. Sarah Newbery, a family physician in the remote Ontario town of Marathon, located on the north shore of Lake Superior.

“I think it’s not an understatement to say that some people will forgo medical treatment, rather than be unable to pay their rent, buy food or run the risk of bankruptcy.”

To qualify for Hope Air, patients have to pass a financial means test, based on gross household income, says Mr. Keller-Hobson. And they must be going to a medically-necessary, physician-referred appointment.

Unfortunately, a lot of people – including some doctors – do not know about Hope Air, says Dr. Newbery.  That means eligible patients are likely missing out on invaluable assistance.

About the author

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Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor, Sunnybrook’s Patient Navigation Advisor, provides advice and answers questions from patients and their families, relying heavily on medical and health experts. Email your questions to AskPaul@sunnybrook.ca
and follow me on Twitter @epaultaylor