Hope Air celebrates 66,000 flights in 25 years: Free flights provide patient access to specialized medical care not available in some communities

“We didn’t know how my son and I would get home from BC Children’s Hospital to Prince George, then my mother-in-law heard about Hope Air,” says Stefanie, mother of two-year-old James, who has leukemia. Stefanie and James were sent by air ambulance to Vancouver from their home in northern BC when James received a surprise diagnosis of leukemia on the Canada Day weekend. After several weeks of treatment in Vancouver, James was ready to go home but he and his mom were alone and with limited options. “Hope Air made our lives so much easier: a 10-hour bus or car ride was turned into a one-hour flight,” Stefanie explains.

Front line professionals in health care and social services will want to take note of the unique national charity Hope Air: For 25 years Hope Air has provided low-income Canadians with free flights to get to specialized medical care that isn’t available in the patients’ local communities. Hope Air provides flights to people of all ages, with all illnesses, from all acrossCanada. Last year, they provided 3,675 flights – and have already provided 3,492 flights in the first nine months of 2011.

“We want health care and social services professionals to think of Hope Air as another tool in their kit of patient resources,” says Doug Keller-Hobson, Executive Director of Hope Air. “We’re here to help the patient access the care they need and to reduce the financial, emotional and physical stress many people experience when they must travel great distances to get care.”

Some patients outside of Canada’s larger urban centres could use Hope Air’s free flight services: many Hope Air clients face car or bus rides of up to 12 hours or more – each way – to reach medical care. Over 27 per cent of clients tell Hope Air that they would cancel or postpone their medical appointments if they were unable to fly to their appointment. The average income of Hope Air clients is approximately $2,500 below the national poverty line.

Hope Air was founded over 25 years ago by volunteers and remains, in many critical ways, a volunteer-driven organization. Its call centre, which handles thousands of calls and requests each year, is staffed by a group of approximately 35 to 50 volunteers. Some of these volunteers have been with Hope Air virtually from its founding while other volunteers might be co-op students, newcomers toCanadalooking for work experience, or people interested in Hope Air’s unique mission. In addition, Hope Air has approximately 350 registered volunteer pilots and an active group of approximately 75 pilots who fly missions, taking clients to their appointments using their own private aircraft. Two new volunteer groups are helping Hope Air manage its growth: volunteers in local communities who are organizing or helping run fundraising events to support Hope Air’s Purchase Flight Program and a vocal segment of Hope Air clients who are telling their personal stories to attract support for the organization and to raise its profile. All operations are overseen by the volunteer Board of Directors.

To help meet the needs of its clients, Hope Air introduced a new flight program in 2010: Hope Air now purchases flights when funds are available. Hope Air continues to rely heavily upon the enormous generosity of commercial airlines to donate flights – and on its volunteer pilots to provide flights on certain routes – but purchasing flights helps the charity be more responsive to client travel needs. The Flight Purchase Program is the first new flight program in over 11 years to be added and it allows Hope Air to buy flights when they exceed the airlines’ capacity to donate, during blackout periods imposed by the airlines, or when private planes can’t fly or are unavailable.

In addition, all flights remain free of charge to Hope Air clients who qualify for a flight. Qualifying is also relatively easy: Hope Air has a minimal means test, asking clients about current income, costs associated with the medical issue they have, and how many people are in the family. People are encouraged to call for three to four weeks in advance for standard medical appointments. For trips home, like Stefanie and James, Hope Air may be able to help with quick turnarounds, though there is no guarantee and flights are dependent on availability.

“We try to help the patient if we can,” says Keller Hobson. “We’re very patient-focused.”

Stefanie and James agree: “As a family, we’d do anything to make sure James gets the best care he can, and Hope Air helps us do that,” Stefanie says. “It was very easy to call and request a flight.”

Hope Air will be launching a new website shortly where health care professionals can register to receive information, sign up for the quarterly newsletter, and other updates on free flight services.

For more information on Hope Air, or to request a flight, please visit www.hopeair.ca or call 1-877-346-4673. Information kits with client cards and posters are also available for hospitals and physicians’ offices.