Maria Victoria Venancio, a temporary foreign worker from the Philippines who became a quadriplegic while working in Edmonton, then stayed in Canada after her visa expired, has been denied health-care coverage by the Alberta government.
"We feel bad," Health Minister Stephen Mandel said Wednesday.
"It's not something that we're really pleased about. But it is part of the rules we have to follow."
Venancio was struck by a vehicle 2½ years ago while biking to her job at an Edmonton McDonalds. When she woke up she couldn't feel her legs.
The use of her hands is limited and she is diagnosed medically as a quadriplegic.
Her condition meant she could no longer perform her job, so her visa was not renewed. Since she is in Canada illegally, she does not qualify for health-care coverage.
Without benefits and provincial health care, she has no coverage for lab tests, X-rays, physiotherapy, doctor appointments, specialists or medication.
"I'm always scared," said Venancio. "I'm always conscious about everything — what I eat, what I do — because I don't want to get sick."
Province bound by the rules, minister says
In March, Progressive Conservative member of the Alberta Legislature Thomas Lukaszuk urged his own government to provide coverage for "badly needed medical treatment" while Venancio awaits a deportation hearing.
Mandel had suggested Venancio's case might fall within federal jurisdiction, and said "I will do all I can to ensure that this individual gets adequate health care within the province of Alberta with the support of the federal government."
Yesterday Mandel said he had looked into it, but he's bound by the rules.
"They've come back and kind of outlined what they can't do," said Mandel.
Lukaszuk said the decision is understandable, because by law someone without status can't receive medical coverage.
He said Mandel could override that rule, but questioned what that would mean for hundreds or thousands of illegal foreign workers who don't leave, adding that the number will grow because of the April 1, 2015, work permit deadline for many of them.
"Do we then extend benefits to everybody?"
Lukaszuk said he plans to work on Venancio's case with the federal health minister.
'Everything is possible'
Venancio said she's saddened by the news, but is determined to keep moving forward.
Last week she did something she was told she would never do again. She took her first steps with the help of a walker.
"It makes me realize — everything is possible," Venancio said with a smile.
She said that possibility would not exist if she had returned to the Philippines after her visa expired.
Venancio is taking part in a research project at the University of Alberta, which provides free physiotherapy, which is where she took her first steps. She also receives pro bono medical care.
Without access to services such as diagnostic testing, her doctor says, it is impossible to properly manage Venancio's care.
Venancio is suing her former employer, who claims she opted out of her medical and disability benefits.
Temporary foreign worker advocate Yessy Byl said governments have a moral obligation to help people like Venancio.
"She came here to work and was contributing to our economy and to our society, and it wasn't her fault that she was in an accident," said Byl.
"We should be asking how can we best help Vicky rather than, "Oh, now you have a problem. Let's get rid of you.'"
Venancio, who talks about returning to work, said one of the things keeping her going right now is all her supporters.
"Who would have thought I would be able to take steps again?" she asked.
"I just want to show them whatever help they're giving me — it's worth it."