Northern Manitoban nearly stranded after being flown to Winnipeg for surgery

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A Flin Flon man is calling on the province to address gaps in northern Manitoban health-care after an emergency surgery nearly left him stranded in Winnipeg.

Roger Siemens Sr. was flown into Winnipeg last Sunday for an emergency appendectomy.

Earlier that day, Siemens went to Flin Flon's emergency room after experiencing severe stomach cramping, but doctors determined he needed a CT scan, so an ambulance rushed him to The Pas.

Following the CT scan, doctors concluded Siemens needed an emergency appendectomy – but the surgeon in The Pas was on vacation.

Siemens flew into Winnipeg on an emergency flight, and he underwent successful surgery at St. Boniface Hospital on Sunday night.

St. Boniface Hospital discharged him on Monday morning, but there was one major problem – Siemens didn't have a way back to Flin Flon.

"I went with the shirt on my back and very little else," Siemens told CTV News on Wednesday.

Siemens said St. Boniface staff contacted the Northern Patient Transport Program (NPTP) to arrange a flight to Flin Flon.

According to the Northern Health Region's website, NPTP is a provincial program of Manitoba Health. NPTP is run by Northern Health and subsidizes the travel costs of northern Manitoban residents to attend medical appointments.

NPTP covers partial costs for services not available in communities, including emergency and elective medical transportation. The NPTP, based on a doctor's recommendation, determines which mode of transportation – air or land – is used.

Siemens said NPTP told St. Boniface staff they would book him a seat with regional airline Calm Air. However, the earliest available flight to Flin Flon was on Wednesday morning, meaning Siemens would need to stay in Winnipeg for two nights.

"I don't have money for a hotel," Siemens explained. "I don't have people in the city I can stay with for two days or a way to get to the airport."

He alleged NPTP said they wouldn't provide accommodations – only a flight back to Flin Flon, so he suggested arranging for a friend from Flin Flon to drive down to Winnipeg to pick him up.

"Then I'm not sitting [in Winnipeg] for two days."

He said NPTP offered $153 to cover gas and other expenses. He said that's only half of what they provide for a round-trip.

"But I would have to bring someone down from Flin Flon to Winnipeg and back," Siemens explained. "It didn't make sense to me."

After speaking with an NPTP supervisor, Siemens was told he didn't qualify for air travel, so the Wednesday flight was no longer available to him. He claims NPTP gave him two options: the $153 for the drive or $130 for a bus ticket on Tuesday morning.

"Still giving me the issue – where do I go from the hospital Monday morning and where do I spend the night?" Siemens said. "And who's paying for my meals and transportation? I don't have that kind of money."

A friend of Siemens, who was in Winnipeg at the time, heard about the situation. Siemens said they rearranged their work schedule and drove him home on Monday.

"I lucked out," Siemens said. "But if that didn't happen, the cost of getting home would've been out of my own pocket."

Siemens said he wants Northern Health to make changes to NPTP policies and provide patients with more clarity – especially in emergencies.

"I want to know what's covered," he said. "In emergency cases, they need to put something forward to cover this kind of situation."

He said when patients are medically evacuated to Winnipeg by themselves, there's no funding for lodging, meals, or in-city transportation.

However, Siemens said his experience illustrates a deeper issue – a lack of available services in northern Manitoba. He said if gaps in Manitoba's health-care system were properly addressed, a program like Northern Patient Transport wouldn't be necessary.

"We're supposed to have universal health care, so why are we paying more in the north for the health-care we deserve?" he said. "The gaps are way too big and they're getting bigger."

Flin Flon MLA Tom Lindsey said Siemens' experience isn't the first he's heard of.

"It's the number one issue I've dealt with since being elected," Lindsay said. "Some people have the means to book a flight and get Northern Patient Transportation to reimburse them, but other people have been left standing in a parking lot."

Lindsey said the province needs to revise policies for transportation following an emergency – and to cover related costs.

"In Winnipeg, it's a $20 taxi ride home," Lindsey said, "But discharging a patient from Flin Flon, it's hundreds of dollars."

Siemens hopes his story encourages other northern Manitoba residents to speak up.

"We need to fix this," Siemens said. "Something has to be done."

Siemens hasn't filed a formal complaint with Northern Health.

A Northern Health Region spokesperson told CTV News they couldn't comment on specific cases.