Some border-town Manitobans have U.S. medical bills repaid, others left in debt

A pair of Sprague, Man., residents have had massive U.S. medical bills repaid, but one of their neighbours says the province has left her in the dark and in the red.

'I should get treated the same as everybody else,' says Verna Kittleson

Verna Kittleson stands inside the duty free shop she runs at the U.S.-Canada border in southern Manitoba. She wonders why the Manitoba government has paid big U.S. medical bills for some of her neighbours but not her. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

At least two border-town Manitobans have had massive U.S. medical bills repaid after months of stress and financial uncertainty, but one of their neighbours says the province has left her in the dark and in the red.

"They should pay my bill, no doubt, because it was an emergency and I should get treated the same as everybody else," said Verna Kittleson, 62, who was left with thousands in medical bills from an emergency stay in Grand Forks, N.D., in 2015. 

It's not about one or two or five people's bills, it is about everybody in our community- Verna Kittleson

The Manitoba government has a long-standing health coverage arrangement that permits residents in border towns including Sprague, four kilometres north of the U.S. border, to access emergency health care at two Minnesota hospitals. The Altru Agreement allows people like Robin Milne, Andrew Thiessen and Kittleson to seek emergency care at facilities in Roseau and Warroad, Minn., and have the costs covered.

Milne, Thiessen and Kittleson have all been rushed to hospital in Roseau in the past few years only to be rerouted by Minnesota health officials to Grand Forks, where they weren't technically covered.

After suffering a heart attack in October 2016 and ultimately receiving treatment in Grand Forks, N.D., the province told Milne, 60, he would have to foot the $118,000 in bills for the emergency stay because he didn't receive his care at the covered Minnesota hospitals.

Robert Milne has had all of his U.S. medical bills covered after months of push back against the Manitoba government, which initially refused to pay for his emergency costs in Grand Forks, N.D. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

In March, Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen changed his tune and said about $64,000 in Milne's hospital bills had been paid. On Wednesday, Milne heard more good news: a provincial official called saying the remaining $48,000 for an emergency flight from Roseau to Grand Forks had also been covered.

"It was awesome," Milne said. "Both my wife and I ... we were just so happy about that and so thankful it's over."

'Very Thankful'

Thiessen, 69, died in April but lived just long enough to see his bills covered, too. 

"He was very thankful," his wife, Diane Thiessen, said on Thursday. "We knew we were in the right."

The Thiessens had to sell land they hoped to pass down to their children after being hit with $40,000 in medical bills when Andrew received emergency kidney treatment in Grand Forks in 2015.

Andrew Thiessen's U.S. medical bill was paid a few weeks before he died. (CBC)

But Kittleson said she hasn't heard a thing from the province about similar bills she was saddled with a couple of years ago.

"I just assumed when they were dealing with Robin's they were going to be dealing with all of the past people who were sent to Grand Forks," said Kittleson, adding she is happy for the Milnes and Thiessens but doesn't understand why she hasn't received the same help.

"I'm just so happy for them, but it's just, 'Stick another knife in me,' because it's just so wrong that they don't come across and do everyone at once ... and leave us just to wait. The stress is just more than what we should be handling at this age."

She received emergency heart surgery in Grand Forks in 2015 and was forced to pay about $63,000 for the treatment. The Kittlesons dipped into their savings and had to take out a second mortgage on her home to pay down the bill.

Widespread confusion

Verna Kittleson got this bill for $67,454.84 US after having emergency surgery in the United States. The province got the bill down to roughly $63,000 Cdn. (Verna Kittleson)

Milne took a stand from the start and refused to pay the bill, but Thiessen and Kittleson complied and took on debt to resolve the issue. In light of how comparatively quickly the province paid Milne's bills, Kittleson is now wondering whether she, too, should have refused to pay early on.

"It's not just paying a bill, it's what are they going to do in the future for everybody?" she asked.

There has been widespread confusion in Sprague and the surrounding area regarding the limitations of the Altru Agreement.

Goertzen has said he plans to complete a review and to modernize the agreement — last revised in the late 1990s — but Kittleson said the province should be doing more in the interim to clarify coverage limitations for people in Sprague.

"They have to do something, because who is next?" Kittleson said.

"All the seniors in the area are all panicking because they're afraid they're going to end up in Grand Forks and they're not going to have anything to leave their children. A lot of them have those envelopes on their fridges in the seniors' home, 'Don't take me to Roseau.' I mean, that's pretty sad that the province puts the fear into everybody by not addressing the issues," she said.

At least two border-town Manitobans have had massive U.S. medical bills repaid after months of stress and financial uncertainty, but one of their neighbours says the province has left her in the dark and in the red. 1:49

This isn't just her story, she said.

​"We have to protect the community. It's not about one or two or five people's bills, it is about everybody in our community. This isn't about Robin Milne or Verna or Andrew, this is about everybody that lives here."

Milne said he hopes the province does what's right and reimburses Kittleson.

A spokesperson with Manitoba Health said the provincial government couldn't comment on issues related to the Altru Agreement and people in Sprague at this time.

"Manitoba's Election Financing Act places a number of restrictions on government communications during a byelection period," the spokesperson said in a statement. "We can respond to questions about current programs and provide statistics, but we are limited in our ability to provide interviews or comment on government commitments that have been made but not yet delivered or implemented."

Sprague, Man., is about 145 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. Roseau, Minn., is about 25 km southeast of Sprague. Grand Forks, N.D., is about 200 km from Sprague. (Google Maps)

About the Author

Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email

With files from Jillian Taylor