Backlog of applicants for new limbs and adjustments to existing ones

Lorna Parker finds herself waiting several weeks and even months from provincial and federal agencies that pay for ongoing adjustments to her prosthetic limb.

Lorna Parker isn't one to sit around the house. Despite having to rely on a full-length artificial leg, you can usually find the veteran Thunder Bay landscape gardener at an outdoor pruning job as soon as the snow is off the trees.

But every spring, Parker finds battling the unpredictable weather a cinch compared to the bureaucracy and paperwork she says she must contend with year-round.

Subsidies from provincial and federal agencies that pay for ongoing adjustments to her prosthetic limb can take several weeks and even months to process, preventing Parker, 57, from getting out and doing her job.

"It's almost like they're disappointed when you tell them that you still want to work (after the loss of a limb)," Parker said this week.

She lost her left leg six years ago due to a blood clot.

Her story is all too familiar to Thunder Bay's Kerry Calder, who is this region's only prosthetic technician - someone who builds and customizes artificial limbs and feet.

Calder, who became an amputee himself nearly 30 years ago after an industrial accident, said the backlog of applications for new limbs and adjustments to existing ones has caused independent operators like himself to pay up-front for clients' devices out of their own pockets.

Operators are eventually reimbursed, but interest charges on lines of credit are not included in the payments, said Calder, the current president of the Ontario Association of Prosthetists and Orthotists.

Calder said the association failed to convince provincial officials that a backlog of applicants exists when they met with them in Toronto last month.

The Ministry of Health, which operates Ontario's Assisted Devices Program (ADP), says claims "are processed in the order that they are received." Typical processing times take six to eight weeks, the ministry says.

This is at odds with what the association maintains are lengthy delays, sometimes lasting two or even three months, it says.

Even though the number of amputees is growing, says Calder, their plight rarely makes the news, "which is why the province sees this as a non-issue."

Calder estimates that independent operators like himself are collectively waiting for $1.5 million in payments they temporally waived for clients who needed limbs or adjustments sooner than later.

Provincially-run prosthetic clinics, like the one at St. Joe's Hospital that closed about 40 years ago, shut down when the province no longer wanted to bear the cost of stockpiling limbs, said Calder.

Limbs are expensive; Parker estimates her own device, although not a top-of-the-line model, is worth about $7,500.

One thing Calder and the province agree on is that the number of Ontarians who need an assistance device, whether an artificial limb wheelchair or portable oxygen tank, is increasing at a fast rate. The reason: an aging population and the prevalence of diabetes, particularly among Aboriginal Peoples.

According to the ministry, the number of Ontarians who received subsided equipment has grown by 150,000 in the last 10 years, bringing the current total to nearly 350,000 recipients.

Last year's budget for the ADP program was $463.2 million. Calder said the percentage paid for prosthetic devices is "a drop in the bucket" which, he says, makes delays in getting claims processed all the more frustrating.

Parker's claims could be delayed longer because her limb and adjustments are also funded by the federal Non-Insured Health Benefits Program (NIHB) for aboriginals.

Calder said in his experience the provincial and federal programs don't always appear to be in sync, with amputees sometimes having to restate their condition.

Why that is required remains a mystery. Says Calder: "Limbs don't grow back."

A spokeswoman for the NIHB program said it's currently under a two-year review. The review will seek "direct input from First Nations and Inuit in the spirit of continual improvement of the program."

In spite of the review, the spokeswoman said, "routine requests that do not require additional medical backup or review by a medical consultant may be processed immediately."

NIHB says it's providing $4.5 million this year for "medical supplies and equipment" for Ontario aboriginals.

Parker said she can't understand why she has to wait so long for her claims to be processed because "socket" adjustment are a routine part of living with an artificial leg.

Entreaties to politicians have fallen on deaf ears, she said.

Calder said the association plans to appeal to local MPPs.

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