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Thalidomide survivor Marie Harnois peels a cucumber in her home in Drummondville, Quebec, March 29, 2015. The government annnounced an annual pension payout for victims of the drug.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

What it is

Thalidomide causes birth defects, such as flipper-like arms and heart and intestinal problems. The federally approved drug was prescribed to pregnant mothers to treat insomnia and morning sickness from 1961 to 1962, before it was taken off the market. More than 100 babies in Canada were born with missing limbs and other severe deformities.

Original payment

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In 1991, the federal government gave survivors of thalidomide a one-time payout of $8.5-million. That worked out to between $52,000 and $82,000 a person, depending on their level of disability. Advocates said the original sum fell far short of the mark.

Second lump-sum payment

Earlier this year, Ottawa offered lump-sum payments of $125,000 each for thalidomide survivors, about half of the amount requested by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada. The government also said it would make up to $168-million available as annual compensation, but it did not explain how the survivors would have access to that fund.

Annual pensions

The government provided details on the pension on Friday, saying victims of the drug can receive annual payments of up to $100,000, depending on the severity of their disability. Survivors will receive the money every year for the rest of their lives, Ottawa says, with no need to reapply or submit receipts. The compensation will not be taxed, and the first payments are expected to go out in early 2016. They include:

  • $25,000 – Survivors who were assessed in 1991 as having relatively mild disabilities, and received a lower level of compensation.
  • $75,000 – Survivors assessed at a higher level of disability in 1991.
  • $100,000 – Survivors with more severe disabilities will be eligible for a reassessment that could allow them to receive this maximum level of support.

Medical assistance fund

Ottawa said it would create an annual Extraordinary Medical Assistance Fund of $500,000 to pay for surgery and allow survivors to adapt their homes and vehicles to accommodate their disabilities. The government did not outline how the claims process would work, saying that would be determined in consultation with the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada.

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Management of the funds

Health Canada said it would identify a third-party administrator to manage the emergency medical fund and reassess compensation levels upon request. The administrator would also assess anyone who was not previously identified as a thalidomide survivor. The compensation system will be reviewed every five years, the government said.

Survivors

A number of Canadian thalidomide victims died during recent decades. A total of 109 people received the original 1991 compensation. The government estimates that about 92 people would be eligible for the new benefits.

Ottawa is giving people six months to come forward if they believe they were damaged by thalidomide and have not already been formally identified. To qualify, an individual will have to show proof of a settlement from the drug company, provide documents showing their mother used the drug in early pregnancy, or be listed on an existing government registry of victims.

How the Canadian deal measures up

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The new annual payouts are roughly on par with existing compensation levels in Germany and Britain. The German government gives its 2,700 thalidomide survivors pensions of up to $110,000 a year, while survivors in Britain receive annual payouts that average more than $88,000 a year. The United States never approved the drug because of doubts about its safety.

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