EI benefits extended to families of seriously ill children

The federal government intends to follow through with its promise to create a new employment insurance benefit for parents who need to take time off work to care for seriously ill children, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said today.

The new benefit, promised during the 2011 election campaign, would provide income support for up to 35 weeks once implemented. It would be available for parents or legal guardians of minor children (under 18 years of age) with a life-threatening illness or injury. A medical certificate signed by a Canadian-certified pediatrician or medical specialist would be required to be eligible for the benefit.

Harper, speaking at a Vancouver school, said of all the government announcements he makes, "few have given me as much satisfaction to announce as this one today."

Harper said there is nothing the government can do to ease the emotional pain when a child is diagnosed with a serious illness, but it can help with the financial hardship that families experience when a child is sick.

"Experience shows us that critically ill children do better and get better when their parents are with them," Harper said. "Families are the foundation of our country, and our government is committed to supporting them."

As many as 6,000 families are expected to take advantage of the new assistance each year. It should be in place by June 2013. It can be combined with the existing compassionate care benefit, which provides up to six weeks of employment insurance for people caring for a sick loved one who is at risk of dying within six months.

Also present at the announcement were Conservative MP Gord Brown, who represents Leeds-Grenville, Ont., the prime minister's wife, Laureen Harper, and the event's host, Vancouver Conservative MP Wai Young.

Brown had introduced a private member's bill in the previous Parliament that sought to provide EI benefits to parents taking time off work to care for gravely ill children. That bill died when the 2011 election was called, but the Conservative Party's platform that year pledged to bring in that benefit to support families.

One of Brown's constituents, Sharon Ruth, worked tirelessly to advocate for this kind of support for families after her youngest daughter, Colleen, became ill with cancer and her family experienced financial hardship first-hand.

"Our story had a happy ending," Ruth told those gathered for the announcement, while acknowledging others less fortunate. Her daughter's cancer is in remission, and she is about to turn 16. Ruth said her daughter is living proof that children can beat cancer, but she has friends who have lost their children.

"I did not set out to be a crusader," she said. "However, you play the cards you're dealt."

Ruth wrote a book about her family's experience and said she did so hoping a decision-maker would read it and see how important it was to help parents.

"Eventually, one did," she said, acknowledging her MP. "Because of you, parents whose children become seriously ill will find their road a little less rocky and a lot less uncertain," she said, thanking Brown.

Harper also paid tribute to Brown's efforts over several Parliaments to implement these benefits and to Ruth, describing what her family went through, including having to re-finance their home.

Before the announcement, the Harpers made cookies with a family at Ronald McDonald House, a charity that helps parents with sick children who travel to Vancouver for care.