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Is Manitoba’s student health coverage enough for int’l students?

Student health care in Manitoba
International students in Manitoba are pushing for a reinstatement of universal health care slashed in 2018, as current insurance plans have limited coverage for foreign university students. Source: Nicolas Tucat/AFP

Keeping tabs on your finances as an international student requires long-term planning that begins long before your arrival on campus. With soaring inflation rates, tuition fee hikes, and increasing medical costs, subscribing to student health insurance plans could buffer you against hefty bills when seeking medical treatment, but is it always enough? 

Not for some international students in Manitoba, who rallied at the province’s legislative building on Monday alongside other advocates to push for their access to public health care. According to CBC News, chants of “What do we want? Health care for all! When do we want it? Now!” were heard on the front steps of the building.

The decision to slash universal health care for overseas post-secondary students from the provincial budget came in 2018, which saved roughly 3.1 million Canadian dollars at the expense of international students. Since then, student health-related out-of-pocket expenses have been a major cause for concern among international students in the province.

“The government should stop treating humans as numbers for economic purposes, but see value in us and extend health coverage to us,” Judith Oviosun, the provincial campaigns coordinator for the Canadian Federation of Students in Manitoba told CBC News in a separate report

The Nigerian native graduated from the University of Manitoba in early 2021, and was among the last cohort of foreign students who had access to public health care before the change to the Health Services Insurance Act took effect four years ago. Oviosun said students have felt like “easy targets and cash cows” of the Manitoba government in the last few years. 

Currently, international students in the province are required to sign up for the Manitoba International Student Health Plan (MISHP) for primary health care. They pay nearly three times the cost for a basic health insurance compared to what Canadian students pay for extended coverage, with limitations applied to their plan. Spouses and dependents of overseas students are excluded from universal health care as well, and will need separate plans at extra costs to access medical care in the province. 

Profit over people? How student health care in Manitoba fails foreigners 

The amendment made to the Health Services Insurances Act in 2018 by the province’s Progressive Conservative government reversed a clause granting foreign university students universal health care. The clause was introduced in 2012 by the former New Democratic Party (NDP) government. 

Jamie Moses, an NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), raised the question of universal health care for overseas students on Monday and pushed for Manitoba’s current Advanced Education Minister Jon Reyes to reinstate it. “Perhaps the minister’s forgotten, but international students already pay so much more for tuition, and him forcing them to pay even more for private health coverage increases their financial hardships,” Moses was quoted saying by CBC News.

Several international students in Manitoba have made headlines after being charged hundreds of thousands in for their hospital bills. A Nigerian medical student at the University of Manitoba was billed CA$38,311 for seeking mental health care after falling into depression during the pandemic. 

The student, identified as Ella, contacted the local police for help on Dec. 29, 2020, which led to an “involuntary psychiatric” hold for nine days. “I kind of felt that I needed help. And I felt that my life was in danger,” she told CTV News. “I know there’s nothing I could have done,” she added. “I couldn’t have stopped my mental breakdown but I also blame myself for everything.” 

The episode prompted a new bout of depression, as she had to deal with a credit agency and an immigration probe just for seeking medical help. Ella wasn’t eligible for insurance coverage as she was only registered in one class, whereas a minimum of three classes was required for her student health plan to kick in. 

In 2021, international student Calvin Lugalambi was presented with a shocking CA$123,000 bill after a long stay in two Winnipeg hospitals for an emergency surgery due to intestinal obstruction. Lugalambi belatedly found out that his insurance had expired as he was between schools after completing his foundation courses at the International College of Manitoba.

He’d not been informed that he would need to purchase additional coverage for his time between schools. “I’m a newcomer here,” he told CBC news in an interview. “I don’t know the rules.”