Cheryl Iwanowsky, a business owner from Port Alberni, is asking BC Ferries to reinstate her assured loading letter so her regular trips to the cancer centre in Vancouver for treatment aren’t so stressful. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Sick Vancouver Island residents battle BC Ferries for access

Medically assured loading aboard ferries welcomed, but pair say issue is bigger

Vancouver Islanders required to travel via ferry to Vancouver for medical appointments will receive medically assured loading aboard BC Ferries through COVID-19, thanks to an order from the provincial government.

The news is welcomed by at least two Port Alberni residents, who have been fighting with BC Ferries for months after their assured loading letters were not renewed due to a policy change.

Cheryl Iwanowsky travels to Vanouver once every three weeks for chemotherapy, where she is involved in a clinical trial to treat lung cancer. Cheryl Magnussen was diagnosed last year with systemic sclerosis, and also takes her daughter, Angel Magnussen, to Vancouver for treatment for serious health issues. Both Port Alberni residents discovered after the new year that BC Ferries had changed its medically assured loading policy in October 2019.

RELATED: Islanders want BC Ferries to follow order that lets residents board before tourists

On July 30 the provincial government created a ministerial order implementing a process for medically assured loading during COVID-19. This process will remain in place as long as the BC government’s state of emergency is active.

“These new provisions will ensure that medically assured loading is protected for people travelling by ferry for medical treatment,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said.

Patients requiring medical treatment on the mainland are required to have a doctors’ letter as well as a government-provided Travel Assistance Program (TAP) form. The doctor’s letter will be valid until a stated expiry date or one year after it is written, whichever comes first during the provincial state of emergency. Farnworth declared the state of emergency more than four months ago, on March 18.

Previously, both Iwanowsky and Magnussen held letters that were valid for one year, and allowed them assured loading for medical treatment and specialist appointments when needed. The policy that changed in October 2019 required patients to ask for a letter from their medical practitioner every time they have an appointment. More and more patients were speaking publicly against the new policy, saying it was an added burden.

Reduced ferry service due to COVID-19 restrictions made it even more difficult, Iwanowsky said.

BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said the policy initially changed in October 2019 because people were abusing the assured loading letters.

“What we were finding is we would be issuing these letters and people were travelling with them for other than medical issues,” she said.

People with letters didn’t find out about the change until their letters ran out and they went to their medical practitioners for another one.

“It used to be easy, and now it’s not,” Iwanowsky said earlier in July. “Last year I had a letter, I carried it with me and they (BC Ferries) would just put me on there.”

For months, she was required to have her oncologist apply for an assured loading letter for every single appointment, even though Iwanowsky had a TAP form that showed she needed to travel for medical reasons. If her appointment ran late, or blood tests showed she needed to stay overnight for additional treatment, she would have to spend time on the phone trying to change her reservation—something that sapped her already flagging energy.

In mid-July, seven months after her ordeal with the letter began, Iwanowsky received word from BC Ferries that she would receive a letter for the ferry closest to her—Departure Bay—but it’s not the same as her previous assured loading letter.

“My oncologist still has to apply for one every time.,” she said. “It’s taken a lot of work just to get to this point. Earlier in the year we had to leave a day earlier to make sure we got a ferry.

“They (BC Ferries) refused to look at my case until my oncologist got involved.”

Iwanowsky said she had a plan earlier in the year to book a ferry every three weeks, but her dates change frequently depending on various factors. “I couldn’t reserve in advance because it was already booked up for most of the summer.”

Changes to accessibility and frequency of ferries between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland were also challenging during the heart of COVID-19 restrictions: ferries between Departure Bay and Horseshoe Bay closest to downtown Vancouver were halted, and those between Duke Point and Tsawwassen were operating at 50 percent and lower capacity.

While Iwanowsky, Magnussen and other critics of the change in policy say this will put undue pressure on medical professionals who have to write more letters to accommodate BC Ferries, Marshall said this was taken into account. “Our customer care department did consult with some physicians,” she said, not naming which medical organizations. The customer care department said they received the go-ahead from medical practitioners to proceed with the policy put into place last October.

“It’s all about fairness,” Marshall said. “We were finding abuse of the program and that takes away from people who really need it.”

RELATED: B.C. Ferries increasing passenger capacity after COVID-19 restrictions

The COVID-19 medically assured loading process does not include specialist appointments or specialty services such as lab tests, radiology, immunizations or physiotherapy. Nor did the October changes. Magnussen said that’s still a huge strain on families that have numerous appointments with specialists whose services aren’t available on Vancouver Island.

“I have 10 specialists in Vancouver now; that’s a huge team. It’s a lot of travel, a lot of back and forth, a lot of medical tests.”

Magnussen was diagnosed in 2019 with systemic sclerosis, which affects numerous organs as well as hand function. She also has a rare immunodeficiency, and treatments she undergoes are often risky—meaning trips to Vancouver can come up suddenly.

“It’s a huge added burden,” she said; she will often have to guess which ferry she will be able to take home after treatment, and will pay for three or four reservations to make sure she doesn’t have to wait.

“I hope (BC Ferries) can revisit their criteria and open it up so it’s a once-a-year application again.”

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

—With files from Ashley Wadhwani, Black Press Media

Alberni-Clayoquot Regional Districtbc ferryCanadian Cancer SocietyCancerPORT ALBERNI

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