High gas prices push maternity care almost out of reach in B.C.’s far north

High gas prices are making life more expensive for a pregnant woman in northern B.C., who says she has to travel hundreds of kilometres for ultrasound appointments. 

Stephanie Roberts lives with her husband and two children in Fort Nelson, in B.C.’s far north, about 130 kilometres south of the B.C.-Yukon border. 

She is currently nine weeks pregnant with their third child, and has to travel to Fort St. John for maternity care — a nearly-800-kilometre round-trip.

With fuel prices rising, Roberts is worried about the hit these trips will have on her budget. In the past, a drive to Fort St. John could cost less than $100 but as prices hit 200 cents a litre or higher, she estimates a round-trip will cost more than $150.

Roberts says her family lives primarily off of a single income, and even a small increase in expenses place a strain on their finances. 

“It’s just crazy,” Roberts said. “It was hard enough to find the money to go down there for the day for an ultrasound and now with gas prices, I might have to cancel my appointment.”

Lack of medical care an ongoing issue

Fort Nelson’s maternity ward was closed in 2012, but pregnant women had been making trips outside of the community for prenatal care for years before then.

Women are also given a form advising them to leave the community at least a month before they give birth because Fort Nelson lacks the resources to safely deliver babies. 

The driving distance from Fort Nelson to Fort St. John, B.C. is nearly 400 kilometres one-way. (Google Maps)

Gary Foster, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, says he has heard multiple stories of people having to bear the cost of travel for these sorts of appointments. 

He said lack of access to prenatal and obstetric care is a small example of how people in the north lack access to essential health services more generally. 

“Sometimes what happens is people forgo their medical treatments, not just for maternity but for other things because they think they can’t afford to travel out of town numerous times to get the treatment that they need,” he said. “This represents a huge challenge to people.”

Northern transportation options not enough

The Northern Health Authority provides a weekly bus available patients who need to travel from Fort Nelson to other communities for medical appointments, but Roberts says it’s not a realistic option for her as there is no guarantee the bus schedule will align with her medical appointments.

Additionally, taking the bus would force her to stay for at least two nights at a hotel, meaning her husband would have to take time off work to care for their other children.

Roberts says her family depends on a single income, which means spending more than $150 on gas in order to receive ultrasounds and other pre-natal care can have a major impact on their budget. (Photo submitted by Stephanie Roberts)

In an emailed statement to CBC, Northern Health said it recognizes “the disruption and financial impact that having expectant or pregnant mothers travel to give birth presents.” Northern Health also provides a list of hotels that offer accommodation at reduced rates for people travelling for medical appointments. 

B.C.’s Ministry of Health directs people who have to travel for medical care to the province’s Travel Assistance Program, which provides partial reimbursement for people seeking maternity care.

However, the only option available in Fort Nelson is flights through Central Mountain Air, which requires passengers to have a layover in Vancouver prior to going back to Fort St. John, with a total round trip costing upwards of $800 over multiple days.

If maternity services can’t be provided in Fort Nelson, Roberts says the province should provide more support for families who have to travel for these appointments, either in the form of covered fuel costs or an allowance for daily expenses. 

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