TORONTO The federal government has announced its first waiting-times guarantee, promising pregnant women on 10 aboriginal reserves that they will get the prenatal care they need within strict time limits.
Mothers-to-be on the reserves will be guaranteed a checkup with a health professional within two weeks of a positive pregnancy test, federal Health Minister Tony Clement announced yesterday in Toronto at a conference on waiting times.
After that, the women will be guaranteed prenatal care at least once every four weeks. And, if at any stage they are deemed to be at risk, they will be seen by a specialist within two weeks of that determination being made.
"Canada's new government is the first in this country's history to introduce a guarantee through this pilot project based on patients receiving the care they need when they need it," Mr. Clement said yesterday.
Aboriginal leaders welcomed the initiative, particularly Angus Toulouse, regional chief of Ontario for the Assembly of First Nations.
"We were left out in terms of patient wait-time guarantees; we weren't even on the radar," Mr. Toulouse said in an interview. "At least now, we're on the radar."
However, he said it will be a challenge to pick the 10 reserves -- out of 600 -- for the pilot project. Conditions at reserves, he said, vary widely and some are in remote locations.
"I'm hoping that the proposed approach is something that will hit the ground level where first-nations people are able to access the services that are going to be guaranteed," Mr. Toulouse said.
There is also a chronic shortage of doctors in many parts of the country.
"Sometimes it is a long wait just to see a doctor for prenatal," Betsy Kennedy, chief of the War Lake band in northern Manitoba, said in an interview. "There are always some concerns, especially for women that are in high-risk pregnancies."
It now takes as long as six weeks for an at-risk pregnant woman from War Lake to see a specialist, and that involves a four-hour train ride to Thompson, Man., and then a flight or a nine-hour drive to Winnipeg.
Other aboriginal leaders said waiting-time guarantees will not address issues of poverty, a key health determinant.
"We're talking about poor housing, we're talking about poor drinking water, we're talking about poor schools and poor access to quality health care," said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "These are all tremendous barriers to ensuring that mothers give birth to healthy children."
The Health Department is still finalizing which reserves will take part in the project, but Mr. Clement said the government will expand the program to other reserves if it proves successful.
He said good prenatal care results in more healthy mothers and babies and that "too many children are born with preventable conditions."
He used the aboriginal prenatal care announcement to press his case for implementing waiting-time guarantees more broadly. Canadians are demanding them, and the minority government is determined to see the plan through, he said.
"There's no stalling. We're moving ahead in an area of our direct responsibility and jurisdiction. We're showing the way," Mr. Clement said, adding provinces that do not act risk lawsuits.