Friday March 27, 2015

Pregnant in limbo: How vulnerable women pay for Canada's universal health care

The union that represents the nurses said the shortages mean there aren't enough nurses to properly care for the babies.

The union that represents the nurses said the shortages mean there aren't enough nurses to properly care for the babies. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Listen 22:45

The numbers in Canada are hard to nail down, but advocates say there are at least 500,000 people living in Canada who don't have provincial health insurance. And tens of thousands of them are pregnant women.

For many of them, the excitement of bringing a new life into the world comes along with a lot stress and anxiety. They worry that they won't be able to afford the care they and their babies need to be healthy.

But does Canada have a duty to care for these women and their unborn children? Healthcare workers who work with uninsured pregnant women say there's no question Canada does.

Pregnancy's price tag in Canada infographic

Manavi Handa, a Toronto-based midwife, says prenatal care is one of the most cost-effective interventions in all of medicine. She says free healthcare for all pregnant women is not only the right thing to do ethically, but it makes a lot of financial sense too.

"Some studies have shown that every dollar spent on prenatal care saves four dollars to the healthcare system," says Handa.

These are the three stories of women featured in this week's Day 6 documentary, Pregnant in Limbo. The piece was produced by Day 6's Beza Seife.

Yaimy 

When Yaimy found out she found out she was pregnant, she says she had just arrived from Mexico to join her Canadian husband and that the pregnancy wasn't planned. She's waiting for her permanent residency application to be accepted under her husband's sponsorship.

Because of her previous pregnancy, she had to have a medically-necessary caesarean section. 

"Everyone says health care in Canada is free. When I arrived, they told me at the border that I would be able to get health care but nobody told me about this three month wait," she says. In Ontario new-comers need to wait the months before having access to free health care.

Her husband Joel says he made payment arrangements with the hospital ahead of time, when he learned Yaimy wasn't covered for her c-section.

So on the day of Yaimy's scheduled c-section, he says he was shocked when the anesthetist asked him to hand over $800 in cash as his wife was lying in the hospital bed with an IV in her arm. He says the doctor told him she wouldn't administer his wife any medication without the cash.

"Honestly, it's crazy. I go to the bank, I bring the money because I need it for her [Yaimy]," he says.

The anesthetist in this case denied Day 6's interview request.

Saira 

Saira Waheed arrived in Canada from Qatar earlier this year with her husband and two children. Canada approved them as permanent residents before they landed in Toronto.

Because of her previous pregnancies, Saira has to undergo a medically-necessary caesarean section, which she was told could cost $10,000 to $15,000.

"I went to a lot of places for help when I first found this out, and I was basically told the same thing: that there's nothing you can do to avoid the wait, and that this is a government process," she says.

Saira says she and her family have spent the little savings they brought with them to get settled, and that they have no fund or plan to cover the cost of her c-section.

Pamela

Pamela is a 25-year-old woman living in Vancouver, with her common-law Canadian partner and her two year old son. After arriving from Mexico on a tourist visa, her partner has now sponsored her to become a permanent resident.

Day 6 agreed to use a pseudonym because she fears going public with her story could negatively affect her permanent residency application.

"I had no idea what to expect with health care. We just thought we go to the hospital and pay, and done. But we didn't think it was going to be that much," says Pamela, about the $10,000 she says the hospital quoted her to deliver her baby there.

So Pamela ended up having her baby at home with a midwife. She says she would have much preferred to have delivered in the hospital, just steps away from her apartment, but without health coverage she says just couldn't afford it.

 "It was so hard, with no painkillers or drugs.  I was so scared. And I just kept thinking should I have gone to the hospital in the first place? I was in the middle of having a baby and they're [the midwife and doula] telling you that you might end up at the hospital. That's very scary," she says.