Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-278, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (benefits for illness, injury or quarantine).
This is a very important proposal and I would hope, as the member for Sydney—Victoria pleaded earlier, that a royal recommendation might be forthcoming from the government to deal with this important legislation.
The legislation, as we have heard, would extend the possibility of EI benefits in the case of illness from a maximum of 15 weeks to a maximum of 50 weeks. That would be a very important improvement to our EI program.
We need to make those kinds of improvements to our EI legislation. We know how many Canadians depend on EI at some point or other in their working lives. We know how important it is to people from coast to coast to coast in Canada.
I found it passing strange that the parliamentary secretary argued that somehow passing the bill would be a detriment to new Canadians, to new immigrants in Canada and that somehow they would not benefit from this kind of legislation.
I do not think anything could be further from the truth. Many new immigrants, new Canadians, and many people new to the workforce in Canada would directly benefit from the provisions of the legislation. I do not for a second understand why the parliamentary secretary would suggest otherwise.
In fact, many new Canadians have come to Canada because of Canada's social programs. They know Canada is a society that shows concern for all of its citizens and seeks to work together collectively to help citizens over difficult periods in their lives. Legislation like the EI legislation is exactly one of the things that makes Canada attractive to people considering immigration.
We must make improvements to the EI legislation. This has not been done for many years and it needs to be undertaken. We have heard many times, and I will repeat, that there is a $50 billion surplus in what is collected from workers and employers for this program. There is far more money taken in by the government in terms of the EI check-offs that both employers and employees pay than is spent on delivering the program.
We do have the ability to fund improvements. The money that is collected from the EI contributions workers and employers should be used for the program. This is particularly important for workers, but I know that employers also recognize the importance of our EI program.
The ongoing debt that Canada experiences should not be paid on the backs of workers who need the support of the EI program. That $50 billion we talk about sometimes is an EI fund. The Conservatives in the past have even talked about formalizing it as an EI fund. That money should be used for employment insurance programming, and the bill would go some way to ensuring that would be done.
As a member of Parliament and as a constituency assistance, I have spoken to many people in the almost 21 years that I have served in those capacities. They face terrible hardship because of the limitations on EI, especially when combined with the length of time it takes to qualify for CPP disability benefit and with the generally low levels of social assistance.
I do not know how many times I sat with people who faced the end of their medical benefits and who were still unable to return to work. The pressure of that moment was unbearable for many of them and for their families. It was often one of the most difficult moments when I had to stand in solidarity with someone who came into the office in which I worked or into my current office.
We know that economic security can be a factor in recovery from a serious illness or injury. The stress of being unable to pay our rent, or to buy food or to provide for our children does nothing to help anyone recover.
I am convinced that the bill might even lessen health care costs by helping to ensure better conditions for recovery from a serious illness or injury.
We know that often people are forced to consider long term disability when, if only a slightly longer recovery period had been available, they would have been able to return to work. They would have been able to see their recovery out and get back to their jobs. We know it is much harder to get back to the workforce from CPP disability or from any disability program than it is from EI medical benefits.
It would be a great personal benefit to Canadians who become ill or are injured in their recovery and return to work if the provisions of this bill were implemented in Canada. It would be a great benefit to our society. I believe it makes sense to take the actions necessary to get people back to work rather than have them just get by on welfare or have to claim CPP disability.
We know the recovery time for serious diseases is often longer than the 15 weeks that are now possible for an EI medical claim. Cancer patients, breast cancer patients and leukemia patients in particular can require 9 to 12 months to recover. We also know that when someone returns to work too early after a serious illness the consequences can be both serious and expensive.
That is why organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society and the Lung Association of Nova Scotia support this legislation. Representatives from both of those organizations testified before the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities that was studying this bill.
Mr. Kenneth Kyle, the director of public issues at the Canadian Cancer Society, provided the standing committee with five reasons that the Cancer Society supported this particular legislation.
First, he noted that diagnostic times are often long for full cancer diagnosis and there are often waiting times between surgery and treatment, making the 15 weeks a serious limitation.
Second, he noted that treatment and recovery are often spread out over many months for cancer patients.
Third, he noted that collateral financial stresses, the costs of uninsured treatment and drugs, travel costs for specialized treatment, special diets, those extras that occur around the time of a serious illness, particularly with cancer, are also a hardship that this bill would serve to relieve.
Fourth, he said that chemo patients can be immune suppressed for a period of time and need to remain segregated from groups, thereby requiring longer than the 15 week period to ensure their recovery to full health and the ability to work.
Fifth, he noted that the lingering effects after treatment with chemotherapy are sometimes difficult to document, including issues like chemo fog, fatigue, personality changes, things that often make a return to work difficult in the parameters that are currently envisioned under the Employment Insurance Act.
Those are all excellent reasons that we should be giving serious consideration to this legislation and that the government should be giving serious consideration to ensuring there is a royal recommendation for it.
I want to point out that doctors would still be required to provide a medical certificate so that the decision about EI medical benefits, even if it is extended to the 50 weeks, would still be made on the basis of medical evidence, which is as it should be.
We also know that currently the average EI medical benefit claim is for 9.5 weeks. This would be a significant improvement and would allow others to take advantage of that important option.
We had a debate this afternoon about the estimates of the cost of extending this benefit. In committee, testimony was given that it would be around $250 million a year. The parliamentary secretary said this afternoon that her estimate was closer to $1 billion a year. I hasten to add that it is clear we have a $50 billion surplus in the EI fund that would allow us to undertake this kind of important change to the EI legislation. I believe this is an affordable course of action to take, but more than that, I also belive it is the right thing to do.
I will conclude by again calling on the government to ensure that a royal recommendation is possible for this legislation so that we can ensure that Canadians who face a serious illness or injury have the appropriate length of time to recover, get back into the workforce and not have to take other measures that are less desirable both for them personally and for society as a whole.