Alberta extends health care to uninsured foreigners with lapsed work permits during pandemic

Alberta has extended health coverage to uninsured foreign workers with lapsed work permits during the public health state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minister 'directed Alberta Health to find a solution' after seeing story about pregnant nurse

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, left, has extended health coverage to nurse Charity Mackrell, right, while she's waiting for a work permit extension. The change applies to others in similar situations in Alberta. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC, Charity Mackrell)

Alberta has temporarily extended health coverage to uninsured foreign workers with lapsed work permits.

Alberta Health cited federal delays approving work permits that have left some foreign workers without access to the province's public health insurance plan. 

Those workers will now have public health care coverage until July 31 or for as long as the COVID-19 public health state of emergency lasts, "whichever is longer," press secretary Steve Buick said in an email Thursday afternoon.

Coverage will be retroactive to the permit's expiry.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the change earlier in the afternoon on Twitter after reading a CBC report about a pregnant nurse who faced paying prenatal medical bills out of pocket.

"I'm happy to announce that effective today, Alberta Health has approved an extension to residents who are waiting on the federal government to renew their work permits," Shandro said in at the social media post.

Charity Mackrell, 26, is a U.S. citizen but has been working as a licensed practical nurse at Olds Hospital on a federal work permit for several years.

"Charity was no longer covered because she is a US citizen, waiting for her federal work permit to be renewed," the minister wrote in his Twitter thread. "To make matters worse, Charity and her husband are expecting a baby due in November."

After seeing the CBC article, Shandro said on Twitter that he "directed Alberta Health to find a solution for Charity and others in similar situations."

'Relieve some stress and anxiety'

The minister called Mackrell personally to tell her about the change.

"I'm just really grateful that he felt compelled to help," Mackrell said after the call. "Hopefully, this is able to help a lot of people and relieve some stress and anxiety because I know we, for sure, felt that."

Foreign workers who are waiting for work permit renewals are legally allowed to work in Canada under what's called "implied status." Alberta Health has previously told CBC News that these workers could apply for a temporary extension for provincial health coverage for 90 days.

After that length of time, workers could save their receipts for health expenses to later request them to be reimbursed, once their permits are renewed, the ministry had said.

Prior to Shandro's announcement, criticism of Alberta Health rolled in online, with Mackrell's union and a member of the Official Opposition calling on action from the governing United Conservative Party.

"Access to health care is a fundamental Canadian value," MLA Kathleen Ganley of the NDP said on Twitter. "The UCP absolutely has to ability to alter the policy and extend health coverage to those whose work permits or residency is being delayed during the pandemic. They should do it — immediately."

Before this latest health coverage announcement, Alberta had allowed foreign workers on implied work status to access COVID-19 treatment under the provincial plan.

The ministry said it will monitor the situation and extend coverage further if required.