FOR the first time since the advent of government health care, First Nations in B.C. will be overseeing their own services, thanks to a landmark pact signed at Xwemelch’stn Thursday.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, B.C. Minister of Health Michael de Jong and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, who all attended the signing, are hailing the agreement as a milestone in the relationship between government and aboriginal peoples.
The pact commits the federal government to handing over responsibility for First Nations healthcare planning and delivery in B.C. to a new First Nations Health Authority, work that is currently handled by Health Canada.
“This will streamline administration,” Aglukkaq said, “encourage the integration of federal and provincially funded health services and allow health-care decision to be made closer to home.”
“If you look at how our people engage with the system,” said Joe Gallagher, CEO of the First Nations Health Society, “We usually don’t access services until we’re really, really sick, as opposed to some of the early-on preventative pieces. if you look at dentistry for example, the way the program works, it’s actually a deterrent for dentists to take on First Nations clients because the federal government has created too much bureaucracy to access the fees for services.”
Many of the details are still to be worked out over the next two years, but Gallagher said the agreement will allow First Nations to determine which services should be delivered by existing provincial health authorities.
Ottawa is providing $17 million in transition funding, along with $83.5 million from the province. Once the handover is complete, the federal government will provide $380 million each year for the First Nations authority, a number that is expected to rise with population and cost increases.
Byron Joseph, co-chair of the Squamish Nation Council, also praised the agreement and said he looked forward to a First Nations Health Authority putting a new emphasis on mental health issues, particularly for residential school survivors and their families.
“I think listening might have been becoming a problem,” he said of Health Canada. “We are feeling the generational impacts from that system today. there needs to be a lot of help in the mental health area. It’s been low on the totem pole for so long.”
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