A charity that promotes equitable access to healthcare and provides free medical transportation is calling on communities along the north shore of Lake Superior for their support.
Established in 1986, Hope Air is a nationwide charity that provides transportation to and from medical appointments for patients living in remote communities or who face significant challenges in accessing healthcare.
Hope Air’s chief hope officer, Mark Rubinstein, said that their “primary mission is to assist low-income or poverty-stricken families, individuals, or children, who need to travel long distance for medical care that is not available in their home community.”
They have partnered with airlines such as Air Canada and Bearskin Airlines to make this possible.
Rubinstein observed that due to the unique structure of healthcare in the province — and the specific challenges that northern communities face when it comes to accessing healthcare services — most patients in northern communities reach a point where they are required to travel south to larger medical centres like Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto or the Health Sciences Centre in London for further treatment or advanced/specialty care.
He said that the “vast majority” of the patients they serve reside in Northern Ontario.
Over 25 per cent of the patients Hope Air serves are children from low-income families.
“In 1986, the founders of Hope Air recognized there was this gap in our healthcare system,” Rubinstein said. “Healthcare is supposed to be universal, but actually getting to healthcare, if you live far from treatment or diagnosis, is not universal and it turns out that many people can’t afford the many thousands of dollars that it might cost to travel from home – communities like Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Gore Bay, or Hearst – to Toronto.”
“Without Hope Air, patients would cancel appointments, they would delay appointments, which ultimately leads to poorer health outcomes.”
Hope Air has been operating nationally for 37 years and 30 years in the province of Ontario.
Rubinstein said that, historically, the charity has run on private donations with “no material funding from the government of Ontario.”
Now, however, the bills are beginning to add up quickly – especially in the wake of COVID restrictions being lifted.
“Up until COVID, we were barely able to keep up with demand,” Rubinstein said. “We have to purchase airline tickets, hotel rooms, [and] taxi vouchers so patients can get from airport to hospital."
“As we came out of the worst of the pandemic, toward the end of last year, we started to see a real increase in demand for Hope Air programs and services. This year – 2023 – program demand has increased over one hundred per cent. And so, it became very clear earlier this year that we simply did not have the funding to sustain this level of demand.”
According to Rubinstein, the company met with the provincial government “several months ago” to present government officials with data and testimonials about the work Hope Air is doing and to discuss a possible partnership or funding model.
The timing is key, Rubenstein noted, because the provincial government is currently in the midst of their overall budget consultation.
While the province continues their deliberation and Hope Air awaits a final decision, the charity has reached out to multiple communities in Northern Ontario for vocal support, launching a cross-community tour and meeting virtually or in-person with dozens or even hundreds of stakeholders including municipal councils, hospitals, social workers, airports, pilots and, patients.
"Almost everyone we spoke to [was] aware at some level of our work and were really concerned about the challenges moving forward and the possibility that Hope Air may have to suspend or withdraw programs from the province," Rubenstein said.
“Fortunately, we’ve had virtually every major Northern Ontario [community] and other stakeholders write letters and simply say, ‘This is the impact of Hope Air on our community and it’s really important to ensure equitable access to healthcare.’ Everyone knows the challenges people have living in Northern Ontario and the fact you have to travel long distance often for life-threatening medical needs.”
In a letter addressed to Nipigon’s town council on Dec. 5, Hope Air’s community engagement manager Kristina De Marzio stated that they will have provided over 3,000 travel arrangements to patients across Ontario in 2023.
Across the country, the 20-employee organization will deliver over 20,000 travel arrangements in 2023.
“I think as a society we’re committed to equitable access to healthcare and I also think we’re committed to trying to do better when it comes to people who are either in poverty or struggling financially, and not try to exacerbate that by making people pay for what should be an essential right,” Rubinstein said.
With the recent report released by the Ontario Health Coalition on Dec. 5 addressing the number of emergency department closures across the province, the service that Hope Air provides is important to ensuring that residents – particularly in remote communities in Ontario – still have equitable access to healthcare services no matter the distance or cost.
"This problem can be solved tomorrow," Rubinstein said. "This problem is purely an issue as it relates to adequate funding… Let’s help pull people out of poverty and let’s not exacerbate people’s financial problems because they have an unexpected major health issue that requires them to travel long distance and potentially incur major financial expenses."