Griev­ing mother calls for changes to EI ben­e­fits pro­gram

Cape Breton Post - - WEEK­END - epot­tie@cb­

The New Water­ford woman asked to ap­ply for short-term dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits but was told her em­ployer didn’t pay into a cover­age plan.

“I thought ‘My heav­ens how am I go­ing to sur­vive?’” she said. “I couldn’t leave her side. I couldn’t imag­ine be­ing in Cape Bre­ton work­ing and her be­ing in Hal­i­fax dy­ing.”

When she was di­ag­nosed, Stephanie’s body was full of mas­sive tu­mours and sev­eral of her or­gans had started to shut down. Her lungs were filled with fluid, one had col­lapsed, and she had a large tu­mour on her heart. She was on life sup­port at times and had started kid­ney dial­y­sis. Fin­layson said the treat­ments gave Stephanie a high fever, six-hour nose­bleeds and al­most ev­ery month she’d be in car­diac dis­tress.

Breath­ing a heavy sigh, Fin­layson said she quit her job and ap­plied for fed­eral un­em­ploy­ment sick­ness ben­e­fits due to stress. Af­ter reap­ply­ing once, she was given a to­tal of 15 weeks at the ba­sic rate of 55 per cent of her av­er­age earn­ings. She also re­quested six weeks com­pas­sion­ate care ben­e­fits de­signed for peo­ple who leave work to care or sup­port a fam­ily mem­ber who is at risk of dy­ing. She says EI of­fi­cials told her she couldn’t re­ceive com­pas­sion­ate care ben­e­fits while her daugh­ter was be­ing treated.

“If you give birth you’re en­ti­tled to (about a) year’s un­em­ploy­ment but if your child is dy­ing you’re only en­ti­tled to six weeks and you are only en­ti­tled to it when treat­ment stops,” she said.

Ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral Depart­ment of Hu­man Re­sources, el­i­gi­bil­ity for com­pas­sion­ate care ben­e­fits hinges on a form signed and com­pleted by a pa­tient’s doc­tor to con­firm they need a fam­ily mem­ber’s care or sup­port and that they are at risk of dy­ing within 26 weeks.

Be­yond the six weeks, if a loved one is still gravely ill, the claimant may be el­i­gi­ble for an­other six weeks, pro­vided they file a new claim with sup­port­ing doc­u­ments, af­ter the ini­tial 26 week pe­riod.

Al­though Stephanie’s doc­tor sent out the nec­es­sary pa­pers, Fin­layson said she only re­ceived six paid weeks af­ter con­tact­ing Lib­eral MP for Syd­ney-Vic­to­ria Mark Eyk­ing.

Eyk­ing said he’s heard of a grow­ing num­ber of cases like Fin­layson’s. He put for­ward a bill to amend the Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance Act by ex­tend­ing ben­e­fits for ill­ness, in­jury or quar­an­tine from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. The bill was first read in Par­lia­ment in 2006 and was sup­ported by both the NDP and the Bloc Québé­cois.

Bill C-278 passed in its first and sec­ond read­ings. How­ever, be­fore it reached a fi­nal vote, a Con­ser­va­tive mem­ber suc­cess­fully con­tested the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion, ar­gu­ing it is a fi­nan­cial bill rather than a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill.

But Eyk­ing dis­agrees, say­ing it qual­i­fies as a pri­vate mem­bers’ bill based on em­ployee con­tri­bu­tions to the EI pro­gram.

His party is plan­ning to rein­tro­duce the bill af­ter pro­ro­ga­tion ends March 3. He’s also hop­ing to amend the con­di­tions of com­pas­sion­ate care to give care­tak­ers a one-year en­ti­tle­ment to EI, sim­i­lar to a reg­u­lar lay­off.

“All of a sud­den you have a ma­jor ill­ness like heart at­tack, stroke or di­a­betes, but can­cer is a big one and then all of a sud­den they can’t work for a year,” said Eyk­ing. “It’s leav­ing peo­ple bank­rupt and los­ing ev­ery­thing. It’s hard enough to go through the ill­ness.”

While EI car­ried Fin­layson into the spring of 2008, things were un­rav­el­ling in her per­sonal life. She be­gan a process of sep­a­rat­ing from her hus­band and selling their house. She was also ac­cu­mu­lat­ing a con­sid­er­able amount of debt from hav­ing to stay in ho­tels, pay­ing for her house and pur­chas­ing food and items such as hos­pi­tal park­ing and clothes for Stephanie.

Cape Bre­ton Cen­tre MLA Frank Cor­bett helped by of­fer­ing his Hal­i­fax apart­ment while the provin­cial leg­is­la­ture was ad­journed. Fin­layson said she and Stephanie, who was then re­ceiv­ing out­pa­tient treat­ments, stayed in the apart­ment for about three months.

Stephanie com­pleted her can­cer treat­ments in Septem­ber but a few weeks later her health be­gan to de­cline. By mid-Oc­to­ber she was back in hos­pi­tal.

“For a whole year I still had to pay for my house, I still had to pay all these ex­penses, my hus­band didn’t con­trib­ute and then all these ex­penses up here,” said Fin­layson. “ You have teenagers ... just think of how much you spent on mag­a­zines and puz­zle books and scratch tick­ets, just things try­ing to oc­cupy their time.”

Fin­layson said Cape Bre­ton’s le­gendary gen­eros­ity came through when her com­mu­nity, em­ployer, and fam­ily mem­bers to­gether raised over $30,000 in do­na­tions for Stephanie.

She said she con­tin­ued to pay into her em­ployee med­i­cal plan, which cov­ered ap­prox­i­mately $60,000 of Stephanie’s med­i­cal costs, but some med­i­ca­tions still were not cov­ered.

“There should be some kind of fund­ing so that these chil­dren don’t have to be there by them­selves,” said Fin­layson. “I’m see­ing all these chil­dren there, they’re 19, 20 years old ... and this has been hap­pen­ing for years. It hap­pens at the IWK with the small chil­dren as well.”

Asked if she be­lieves a 19 or 20 year old is con­sid­ered a child, Fin­layson said yes.

“It’s a na­tional is­sue,” said Fin­layson. “It’s hap­pen­ing in all of the hos­pi­tals, that these lit­tle chil­dren are go­ing through life-threat­en­ing ill­nesses and the par­ents have to go to work be­cause not only are you keep­ing your own ex­penses, but you are ac­quir­ing all these ad­di­tional ex­penses be­cause you have a sick child.”

In Oc­to­ber 2008, doc­tors said Stephanie’s spleen and liver were grossly en­larged. Fin­layson in­sisted Stephanie have surgery to re­move the or­gans, which were found to be can­cer­ous. Doc­tors hes­i­tantly gave Stephanie an­other round of chemo­ther­apy fol­low­ing the surgery and be­fore she was sched­uled to re­ceive a stem cell trans­plant.

While the can­cer went into re­mis­sion, Stephanie con­tracted the MRSA (me­thi­cillin-re­sis­tant Sta­phy­lo­coc­cus au­reus) virus in Hal­i­fax hos­pi­tal and died from the in­fec­tion.

Erin Pot­tie - Cape Bre­ton Post

Valerie Fin­layson of New Water­ford holds a pho­to­graph of her daugh­ter Stephanie, left in photo, who lost her bat­tle with leukemia in 2008. Fin­layson quit her job to be with her daugh­ter as she re­ceived med­i­cal treat­ment. She is now urg­ing Canada’s MPs to sup­port an amendment to the fed­eral Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance Act that would al­low par­ents to re­ceive one-year wage ben­e­fits while car­ing for a child with a ter­mi­nal ill­ness.

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