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Monday, Nov 22, 2004

Ottawa set to aid hep C 'forgotten'

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Ottawa : Ottawa will begin compensation discussions with the so-called "forgotten victims" of the hepatitis C tainted-blood scandal, six years after their controversial omission from an earlier $1.1-billion package.

Government sources said yesterday the federal cabinet has decided to begin talks with victims groups and with other officials, with an eye toward compensation. Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh is expected to make the announcement today.

The talks could see the victims get access to part of what's left in a $1.1-billion fund that had originally been established only for individuals who caught the disease between 1986 and 1990, the years for which Ottawa has admitted liability.

Canadians who contracted the disease before Jan. 1, 1986, and after July 1, 1990, were later promised $300-million, money which Ottawa distributed to the provinces for use only to cover the cost of additional medical care, not to provide cash compensation.

Their exclusion from the main fund caused an emotional debate within Liberal government ranks when the party's caucus, deeply divided on the issue, was ordered in April of 1998 to vote against an opposition motion that would have extended compensation to all hepatitis C victims. In the end, after then prime minister Jean Chrtien declared the vote a question of confidence in the government, not one Liberal, even those who had long advocated wider compensation, stood in support of the motion. Many stared at the ground grim-faced while opposition MPs yelled "shame" across the floor of the Commons.

There have been 9,424 claimants for the 1986-90 compensation money, but fewer than half of those were actually infected by tainted blood. (The rest are family members.) It is estimated that there would be about 5,300 claimants from before and after that period. This number is based on the number of people who have registered for legal settlements and various provincial compensation plans. It could double if family members are included.

But the total would still fall short of initial estimates of 22,000 claimants in the 1986-90 group alone. Ottawa has admitted it overestimated the number of sufferers who qualified for the money. The fund has about $865-million left in it.

With most of the money still locked up in the fund, victims groups say hundreds of people have died in the meantime without getting extra help or comfort for their illness.

Discussions to reopen the issue will start as soon as possible but are expected to take several months.

"The government believes revisiting the 1998 compensation decision is the right and responsible thing to do," a source said.

Sources said government officials must speak with the lawyers representing those victims left out of the compensation plan, as well as with lawyers who oversee the fund. Discussions must also begin with Canada's provinces, who contributed money, before cash can be disbursed. Ottawa's share of the fund is about $875-million.

Mr. Dosanjh's move comes after a parliamentary committee unanimously called on Ottawa to use the fund to compensate all victims who contracted the disease.

Earlier this fall, he said his department was considering releasing cash from the account.

The matter has raised controversy, particularly in Ontario, where the provincial Liberals have been accused recently of misspending their portion of the $300-million medical fund. The issue has also divided the federal Liberal caucus, some of whose members have asked their cabinet colleagues to reopen the fund.

Individuals suffering from the disease include hemophiliacs who contracted the condition from blood donated in U.S. prisons.

Mike McCarthy, former president of the Canadian Hemophilia Society, has criticized the federal government, saying the unused money in the fund sat earning interest while people who became ill because of mistakes made by the blood system are dying.

With a report from Andr Picard .