How Canada’s EI Sickness Benefits is Failing Breast Cancer Patients

1 in 9 women Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime[1]. This statistic indicates that at some point in my life, there is a good chance that I will witness or experience the devastating impacts of the disease firsthand. It is easy to see how a cancer diagnosis can take a physical and emotional toll on a patient and their family, but we often fail to neglect is the financial stress placed on individuals and families living with breast cancer.

Canada was once known as having one of the best and most comprehensive health care systems in the world, but one need look no further than the many breast cancer patients slipping through Canada’s social safety net. Employees in insurable employment pay small premiums off each paycheck into employment insurance (EI) with the belief that should they become too ill to work, EI sickness benefits will help to offset the financial costs incurred.

What many individuals are unaware of until they find themselves in the position of having to rely on EI sickness benefits, is that their coverage will only last a period of 15 weeks while the average length of treatment is 38 weeks but can often last up to a year[2]. This gap has the potential to leave individuals and their families in dire financial straits as they struggle to cope with not only with lost wages but also the costs of transportation, hotels, drugs, and other associated costs.

Over the past few decades we have seen huge advancements in the detection and treatment of breast cancer but relatively little attention has been paid to improving the lives of patients outside of the medical realm. The Canada Health Act (CHA) is a defining piece of Canadian legislation whose criteria we have failed to meet for patients living with breast cancer. No patient should have their course of treatment decided based off of financial concerns or be forced to return to work before they are physically able. We need a system in place that allows breast cancer patients to access treatment without suffering financially.

The solution to this problem going to involve putting more financial strain on a healthcare system that already represents a significant portion of our provincial and national budgets. Extending EI sickness benefits from the current 15 weeks to 52 weeks will allow for patients to maintain some sense of financial security throughout treatment. This should not be a far departure for the Canadian government, who already offers up to 45 weeks of regular EI benefits for those who have lost employment through no fault of their own.

This extra cost to the system is one that we must find a way to include in our budget if we are to fulfill the spirit of the CHA and provide a level of care to Canadians that most have come to expect by nature of their citizenship. The Canadian government is a proponent of small change and thus a gradual extension of the maximum EI sickness benefits may prove to be the best course of action to examine the effects on the healthcare system budgets and the number of patients who continue to use the extended benefits. This slow phase-in would provide the government with time to make necessary budget changes and prepare for the increased expense of extending the EI sickness benefits.

This extra cost to the health care system may eventually lead to some debate as to whether or not to increase the EI contributions made by employees. At some point in the near future it may be a course of action that should be evaluated should it become financially necessary in order to be able to extend the benefits to those who need it. There must be a balance between providing the most comprehensive benefit system possible while not breaking the banks of Canadian families.

If Canada wants to be a world leader in health and health innovation, we must stop lagging behind the curve and setting a minimal standard for healthcare. Politicians are well aware that these changes to the system need to be made, and our shortfall can be easily seen when compared to other nation, at least 90 of which provide benefits for at least 26 weeks or until recovery[3]. Success will come when the treatment options of cancer patients are dictated by the timeline in which they must return to work and the coverage level they are entitled to fully covers the time in which they are unable to work due to illness.


References

[1] Public Health Agency of Canada, Breast Cancer, http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/cd-mc/cancer/breast_cancer-cancer_du_sein-eng.php (accessed October 5, 2014)
[2] Canadian Breast Cancer Network, Breast Cancer: Economic Impact and Labour Force Re-Entry: May 26, 2010, http://cwl.ca/resolution-2013-02-employment-insurance-benefits-for-cancer-patients-and-their-caregivers/ (accessed October 5, 2014)
[3] The Catholic Women’s League of Canada, Resolution 2013.02 Employment Insurance Benefits for Cancer Patients and their Caregivers, http://cwl.ca/resolution-2013-02-employment-insurance-benefits-for-cancer-patients-and-their-caregivers/ (accessed October 5, 2014)


Kelly Simpson

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Kelly is currently a student at Western University studying health sciences. After completing her undergraduate degree she is planning on pursuing a law degree.