Ferries meeting shows continuing confusion around MAL program

Comments during a Nov. 25 BC Ferries meeting about the short list of “near-term” strategies for improving service on the Sunshine Coast suggest there’s still a lot of confusion about the Medical Assured Loading (MAL) program.

The 19-member working group’s ideas fall into four broad categories: travel certainty; medical travel; better communication to make planning and travelling easier; and “demand management” to make better use of the available ferry capacity.

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But it was MAL, and the Travel Assistance Program (TAP), that seemed to generate the most questions and discussion during the two-hour online meeting.

Brian Anderson, vice president of strategy and community engagement, said there are far more travellers on Route 3 using TAP alone, which covers the cost of the trip but doesn’t guarantee people get on the next available sailing, than MAL which is combined with TAP.

Some of the ways the working group said MAL and TAP could be improved without needing approval from the health ministry include setting aside reservation space for TAP or MAL users, and making information about TAP and MAL easier to find and to understand.

In background material BC Ferries said, “We want to provide easy, comfortable, and prioritized travel to those who most need it ... [but] at this time we do not have the authority to make changes to either the TAP or MAL programs.”

After some seemingly contradictory information about how MAL works, Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons, who pushed to have medical travel included under the province’s current COVID emergency orders, asked for clarification about how the system is currently administered.

“Our current policy for Medical Assured Loading is to accept patients who arrive at the terminal with the Travel Assistance Program form and a letter from their doctor, stating that they require priority boarding, to be accommodated wherever possible on the next available departure,” Anderson said.

But one of the people attending the meeting claimed the medical clinic she’d been dealing with recently told her MAL letters can only be written for cancer patients.

The BC Ferries representatives said that’s definitely not the case, although decisions about which patients get letters is left up to their physicians because it’s in large part a medical judgment.

“There’s a lot of confusion about what the MAL does and does not cover, especially from the medical offices on both sides of the water,” David Hendry, director of strategic planning and community engagement, said. “I think that’s something BC Ferries and the medical offices can work on together. We’re the ferry company, we’re not medical practitioners and we do rely on the medical practitioners to dictate whether they think a MAL is substantiated.”

The question of whether MAL is open to abuse was also raised, which led to more contradictory statements about MAL letters needing to specify the date the patient is travelling for treatment instead of being open-ended before it was confirmed that is no longer the case.

Stuart Pelly, a Horseshoe Bay terminal employee and part of the working group, said that in his experience no matter what the program, there are people who will try to take unfair advantage of it.

“There’s always going to be somebody that unfortunately takes advantage of the situation,” he said. “So that’s why putting in checks and balances is very important when you’re dealing with that volume of [traffic] flow.”

At one point the woman who said she was having trouble getting a MAL letter said maybe the best solution would be to eliminate reservations.

Anderson said the pros and cons of having a reservation system is “one of those topics that will be hotly contested and debated for a long time to come” and BC Ferries is trying to find a balance.

He also acknowledged the challenges and anxiety for people who need to travel for medical appointments and said the concerns “are certainly not falling on deaf ears.”

“We are working closely with the ministry of health and ministry of transportation,” he said.

BC Ferries has added a second online meeting on Nov. 30 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and the survey will remain open until Dec. 9 at www.bcferriesprojects.ca/aheadtogether



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