Canadian charity that helps people travel to medical appointments sees spike in demand

This photo from the Hope Air Facebook page shows a plane flown by a volunteer pilot during an annual fundraising expedition.

An organization that helps Canadians who need to travel long distances for vital medical appointments is seeing a spike in demand as provinces work to clear the backlog of surgeries and procedures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hope Air made 6,700 free-of-charge travel arrangements last year for patients who needed to leave their communities to access health care. These included flights, hotels, meals and ground transportation to and from appointments.

CEO Mark Rubinstein says 2022 is on track to be even busier.

"So many of our patients who would normally travel with us – whether they were flying from Kelowna to Vancouver, or Sault Ste. Marie to Toronto – so many of them ended up having their appointments postponed. A number of them have had them rescheduled, many still are sort of in process," he explained.

In March of 2022, the federal government, announcing funding for the provinces to help clear COVID-19-related health-care waitlists and backlogs, estimated that 700,000 procedures have been delayed. In addition, a survey by Statistics Canada found that during the first year of the pandemic, approximately 50 per cent said they had difficulty accessing the care they needed. About one in three said they delayed contacting a medical professional about a health problem. 

But Rubinstein says the issues in the health-care system are only way in which the pandemic has increased demand on the organization.

"One of the things that's not talked about a lot is Hope Air's focus is on low-income families, individuals and children," he tells CTV News.

"Because of the economic disruption caused by COVID, so many small businesses and service industry jobs were lost. The number of families and individuals that have moved onto the margins of poverty and low-income has grown exponentially."

AMBITIOUS FUNDRAISING GOAL

According to Hope Air, 27 per cent of the people they serve say they would have cancelled their appointments without the assistance provided. In a country where more than 10 million people live outside of urban centres, Rubinstein says there's a significant, unmet need for the service the organization provides.

Although their work is funded in part by government, fundraising is crucial and accounts for 73 per cent of the overall budget.

They have set an ambitious goal for this year's Give Hope Wings event. Volunteer pilots are spending most of the month of June on a cross-country expedition to raise awareness and funds for the organization. Like so many events, it had to be scaled back over the past two years.

"The goal is to raise $1 million in a single year," Rubinstein says.

"We have a long, long way to go but the expedition is just kicking off and we're hopeful we can get there. Those funds literally save lives."

At an event promoting the expedition in Vancouver, Rubinstein says people heard first-hand from a family about the difference travel assistance made.

Nine-year-old Henry was diagnosed with leukemia in 2019. His mom had been driving him from Kelowna to Vancouver for his specialist chemotherapy appointments before she heard of Hope Air.

"Henry's mom really talked about the fact that it was truly life-saving for her son because without us it really wasn't clear how they would make the trip, whether they would be able to financially afford it," Rubinstein says.

The pair have taken over 30 flights for treatment, with Henry saying his favourite part of the trip is looking out the window. Henry is now cancer-free but will still need to travel for follow-up care.

"We have, I mean, thousands of examples like that," Rubinstein added.

The expedition took off from Victoria on June 6 and will wrap up on June 24. More information can be found online.