CALGARY — Trina Arnold used to work in finance. She’s familiar with numbers and budgets and keeping things in the black but that experience wasn’t enough to keep her own financial world from crumbling earlier this year when she was told she had cancer.
“Immediately, I felt panic,” the Calgary mother of two recalled. “I was diagnosed on January 20th with Stage 2 breast cancer.
Unable to work, Arnold applied for federal employment insurance (EI) under its sickness benefits program. She’s already had a double mastectomy and is through three of four rounds of chemotherapy. She will likely be off work for several months but she no longer receives EI because sickness benefits are capped at 15 weeks.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Arnold. “You can get EI and get laid off for 52 weeks and be on EI for that long but then you get sick and you only get 15 (weeks).”
Arnold is now trying to draw attention to the problem, lobbying Ottawa to extend sickness benefits and circulating a petition launched last year by Green Party leader, Elizabeth May.
Global News asked Employment and Social Development Canada why EI sickness benefits are capped at 15 weeks and whether there was a need to extend coverage for cancer patients. The department did not answer these questions directly but a spokesperson forwarded it’s most recent EI Monitoring and Assessment Report. That report found that for the 336,800 EI sickness benefits claims that were made in 2013/2014, the average length of claim came in under the 15 week cap at 9.7 weeks.
The Canadian Breast Cancer Network has also studied EI Sickness Claims and found there is a need for more support. In a recent study the Network found up to two-thirds of breast cancer patients miss more than 16 weeks of work for treatment and on average are without EI benefits for 23 weeks.
Alberta Health Services said social workers at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre are available to help patients in need access other sources of income support.
“We have a long list of resources available that we can help navigate our patients through,” said Teresa Davidson, executive director of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.
For Arnold, those additional resources have not been enough to make ends meet. She’s had to rely on friends and family to ensure her bills are paid as she tries to remain focused on getting well.
“I’ve had amazing friends and family who have done fundraisers for me and have raised money so I don’t lose my home and I don’t have to sell my belongings to survive.”