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Politics Ottawa’s offer to thalidomide victims is little cold hard cash, much cold-heartedness

While Ottawa pats itself vigorously on the back for finally making an offer of compensation to the 100 or so long-suffering victims of the thalidomide scandal, let's be clear about one thing: This deal is churlish, cynical and wholly inadequate.

Given what the thalidomiders have endured, physically, mentally and politically over the years, it is too little money and, to make matters worse, accessing the financial help that is desperately needed now requires far too much time and effort.

The package, unveiled Friday afternoon – a time when governments release information they don't want scrutinized by the media – is being billed as a $180-million deal that, in the words of federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose "will help ensure that survivors receive the care they need to live the rest of their lives with dignity."

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It is nothing of the sort.

What is on the table is a paltry-to-the-point-of-being-insulting $12-million offer, in the form of a $125,000 lump-sum payment to each of the survivors.

That is to be supplemented by a vague "up to $168-million" medical assistance fund that will be paid out – maybe – from here to eternity.

Despite taking more than three months to cobble together this offer, the federal government could provide absolutely no detail on how the fund would operate.

We're told it would have a third-party administrator – not yet named. Victims would be able to apply for financial assistance for "extraordinary medical needs" – not yet defined. And they wouldn't be able to even start making those applications until next year.

History (read: the legal settlements in the tainted blood scandal) tells us that this kind of "assistance" program involves a lot of onerous paperwork, and that very little money goes to the victims, and a whole lot goes to the lawyers and accountants who administer it.

To make matters worse, the settlement offer does not even include a long-overdue apology. Instead, Ms. Ambrose expressed "heartfelt sympathy and great regret."

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Not good enough.

Ottawa has a lot to apologize for. To refresh memories, there were at least three egregious failures on the part of government regulators:

Thalidomide, a drug marketed as a treatment for morning sickness and insomnia, was widely distributed as samples to doctors between 1959 and 1961, before it was approved;

The drug was approved by the Department of Health and Welfare in April, 1961, even though strong evidence had already emerged that it was causing birth defects;

Thalidomide (sold under the brand names Kevadon and Talimol), remained available for sale in Canada until May, 1962, fully three months after it had been banned in England and Germany.

These failings – all the result of dithering on the part of government – caused real, lasting harm for which those responsible have never made proper amends.

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Ms. Ambrose hinted again Friday that Ottawa had helped victims in the past and it was doing so again as some sort of act of kindness.

The reality is that some of the victims received token compensation payments from the drug's distributor, the William S. Merrell Co. (now part of Dow Chemicals), but that was around $10,000 for most.

A government compensation plan, unveiled in 1991 after years of lobbying by the War Amps, resulted in lump-sum payments ranging from $52,000 to $82,000 to 109 thalidomide victims, with the tacit understanding there would be more to come.

That "more," which was announced Friday, is inadequate.

Victims of thalidomide don't deserve to be nickel-and-dimed and they don't need more humiliation. What they need is some cash to help them and their families cope with the challenges that come with aging with severe physical disabilities.

Stated crudely, many of the survivors – whose mothers took thalidomide between 1959 and 1962 – don't have long to live. Some have died in the past year and many are living in abject poverty (their average income last year was $14,000), which was the impetus for the renewed push for justice that has been denied them for more than half a century.

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The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada made a straightforward request: A $250,000 lump sum payment, followed by annual payments of $75,000 to $150,000, depending on severity of illness. This is roughly equivalent to what thalidomide victims have received in other countries such as Germany and the U.K., and significantly less than what many victims of tainted blood received.

There are times to play hardball in negotiations, and this is not one of them.

The federal government should have accepted that demand and started cutting cheques the day it was tabled.

Instead, Ottawa left thalidomiders hanging for three long months only to come up with a deal that offered little cold hard cash but much cold-heartedness, and not so much as a "sorry."

Thalidomide victims have, throughout this ordeal, been incredibly patient and dignified.

They have waited a long time for a wrong to be righted. But they have been wronged anew.

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