Veronica immigrated to Canada while pregnant. She visited the OHIP office the day after she arrived in Ontario, where she learned of the province’s three-month waiting policy, which denied her coverage for her first 90 days in the country. During this period, she delivered her child, and after a required caesarian section, was left with a $12,000 bill that she is now repaying in monthly instalments.
“OHIP for All” campaign organizers share this “Story of the Uninsured” as one example of the roughly 500,000 Ontarians who are currently denied access to medical care through lack of coverage by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). These vulnerable people are denied proper care in a variety of ways, from outright refusal to unreasonable delays, by being asked to pay large sums of money upfront or receiving large medical bills following treatment.
Newly landed immigrants, temporary foreign workers, returning Canadians (those who have been out of the country for more than 212 days in the previous year), international students, those waiting for sponsorship or those working in precarious conditions are most likely to experience these systemic barriers, say campaign organizers.
The primary goal of the campaign is to end the three-month waiting period, which prevents new residents from accessing OHIP coverage until that period elapses. During that time, individuals are either forced to buy private insurance out of their own pocket, which is often complex and highly variable, or wait without care until they are eligible. The campaign is led by a group of community members, health and social service providers, and supported by numerous organizations including Toronto Public Health, the Ontario Health Coalition, the Ontario Medical Students Union and the Ontario Nurses Association, along with 40 others.
The three-month waiting period was created in 1994 as a cost-saving measure, however, there is no evidence that this waiting period saves any money for the province. Local health care providers note the arbitrariness of this measure, suggesting that the opposite is true.
“These groups often delay seeking care for the fear of the cost that will be thrust upon them. This leads them to get sicker and sicker until they finally end up in the hospital. Is this really the way the Ontario government wants to treat its citizens?” asks William Caron, one of the campaign organizers and a medical student at McMaster University.
“The [issues] are on the surface level very simple and adherent to the general values of the Canadian Health Act, as well as to the sensibilities of Canadians,” notes local family physician Dr. John Sehl. And, despite some skepticism about pushing change through the bureaucratic Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, Sehl believes the campaign is making laudable and worthwhile demands.
“Doctors [can] articulate and advocate for the disadvantaged so as to hold the politicians accountable,” he says.
The campaign jumpstarted this summer with a series of rallies across southern Ontario, and there is currently an open letter on the campaign website addressed to Premier Wynne and Health Minister Eric Hoskins. Caron suggests contacting local MPPs to make the voices of the uninsured heard. The goal is to move publicly accepted moral ideals into tangible changes.
Free and universal health care seems core to our Canadian identity, and access to care is an official human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This denial period is leaving residents without an adequate standard of living, and regardless of the challenges, a change must proceed.
“Whether you are a migrant worker in need of insulin, of whether your immigration status is in a tenuous position and you’re left too scared to go to an emergency department for fear of being turned away, you are still a human being,” says Caron.