‘Err on the side of compassion,’ health minister urged in dealings with potential thalidomide survivors

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Toronto man files legal challenge over federal government's thalidomide compensation program – Feb 15, 2017

The Trudeau government should “err on the side of compassion” when deciding which applicants born with disabilities qualify for compensation under the federal Thalidomide Survivors Contribution Program, a House of Commons committee wrote to the health minister.

In the letter, committee chair and Liberal MP Bill Casey writes that he and his colleagues want to ensure all thalidomide survivors are recognized and compensated.

READ MORE: Requirements for getting thalidomide compensation are nearly ‘impossible to meet,’ lawsuit alleges

“We believe that … the government should err on the side of compassion, and adopt a fair process that ensures that no one who was born with disabilities caused by thalidomide exposure is denied access to the [survivors contribution program],” Casey wrote.
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Canada’s ‘forgotten victims’

The letter lays out the eligibility criteria the federal government established, which includes:

  • Verifiable information showing the applicant received a settlement from the drug company.
  • Documents, such as medical or pharmaceutical records, proving the applicants’ mother used thalidomide in Canada during the first trimester of pregnancy.
  • Or the applicant already being listed on an existing government registry of thalidomide victims.

In 2015, the Conservative government announced a compensation package for 92 Canadian survivors of thalidomide ,which included a one-time payment of $125,000 and a yearly pension.

Left out of that announcement was the group of Canadians born with limb deformities similar to those associated with thalidomide, but without the medical records to prove their mothers took the drug while pregnant.

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That group was allowed to apply for compensation, though some felt the criteria was prohibitive.

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As of February, 122 qualified under the program, and another 140 others were rejected.

As of March 27, there were 25 new survivors confirmed, according to the health minister.

The U.K. model

The House of Commons committee studying the federal compensation program heard from a panel of witnesses over two meetings including representatives from Crawford & Company (the third party administrating the Thalidomide Survivors Contribution) and Health Canada, the former director of the U.K.’s Thalidomide Trust, and two men who had applied for compensation in Canada but were denied.

“In the absence of any definitive scientific test, it is difficult to distinguish between conditions caused by thalidomide and those caused by other factors,” said Health Canada’s Cindy Moriarty, who oversees the thalidomide compensation program.

READ MORE: Ambrose unveils details of compensation plan for thalidomide survivors

“It was, therefore, important to ensure the program was founded on objective and verifiable criteria.”

However, the lack of a medical examination among Canada’s required criteria was one area of focus among the witnesses.

“I don’t know how you can reject someone without a physical examination,” said Dr. Ivor Ralph Edwards, a professor of medicine who convened and chaired a World Health Organization meeting of experts on thalidomide’s developmental effects on an embryo or fetus.

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The ‘balance of probabilities’

The former director of the program in the U.K. (where settlements were agreed to decades earlier than in Canada), described a process for determining eligibility that was much more open than Canada’s.

“Probably 50 per cent of the original cases in the 1968 and 1973 [U.K.] settlements, where thalidomide exposure was agreed a virtual certainty, had no documentary evidence,” said Dr. Martin Johnson, explaining the widespread and casual distribution of the drug.

“From the outset, it was known that this standard could not be insisted on in every case.”

READ MORE: Ottawa to compensate thalidomide victims with $125K each

The U.K. required documentary proof that an applicant’s mother took thalidomide, but only if the individual was born after the drug was taken off the shelves, if there was no record of the drug’s distribution in the area the claim arose, or if the individual had symptoms atypical of thalidomide.

“The standard of proof required for a decision was on the balance of probabilities,” he said.

Because of the perceived shortcomings in Canada’s eligibility criteria for access to its thalidomide compensation program, Casey said he and the committee recommend all claimants who applied and were rejected for compensation – or anyone who didn’t apply because they lacked the required documentation – receive a physical examination.

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Doing so, he wrote, will “determine, on a balance of probabilities, the likelihood of thalidomide exposure,” in a way that’s in line with the U.K.’s model.

Health Minister Jane Philpott’s office confirmed receipt of Casey’s letter an committed to reviewing the recommendations.

Asked in February about the Canadians whose applications were declined, Philpott noted not all applications were yet reviewed and said the government wants to recognize the needs of those facing challenges that “may or may not be associated with thalidomide.”

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