London

London family wants OHIP to cover daughter's cancer costs

A London family wants the Ontario government to waive the three-month waiting period for OHIP coverage for their 23-year-old daughter diagnosed with stage four cancer.

Family want 3-month waiting period waived for daughter diagnosed in Sweden with stage four cancer

Alexia Serben of London, Ont., was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer in March, less than two months after giving birth to her second child. Serben had been living in Sweden and the family is asking the Ontario government to waive the three-month wait for government health insurance. (Panageas family)

The position of London's Panageas family is simple: They want their 23-year-old daughter Alexia to be covered by public health insurance as she wages a life-or-death battle against cancer. 

Alexia Serben (nee Panageas) has lived with her husband Jovan Serben and their 19-month old son in Helsingborg, Sweden since early 2017. Prior to that, she'd lived her entire life in London, Ont., going to Fanshawe College and living with her parents. 

The family's crisis started earlier this year at what should have been a joyful time: the birth of a second child, daughter Hristiana on Jan. 28.

But shortly after giving birth, Alexia began to suffer from fever, chills, body aches and other symptoms. It took a few weeks of testing before doctors confirmed the devastating diagnosis: Alexia had stage four colorectal cancer that had already spread to her liver. 

"In a matter of three days, our lives were flipped upside down," said Jovan Serben in an interview with CBC News by video chat from Sweden. "We didn't expect this."

Alexia's mother Christina flew to Sweden immediately after the diagnosis to be with her daughter. 

As a dual citizen, Alexia has access to health care in Sweden. But the family wants her to be treated in London, Ont., where she will have more family support and a wider window where they can all be together. Visitors to Canada from Sweden can stay for six months on a tourist visa while Canadians travelling to Sweden can only stay three months. 

That means Jovan can stay longer in Canada than Alexia's parents could spend in Sweden.

But treatment costs are also an issue. Because Alexia has lived outside of Ontario since 2017, she must reapply for coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), and that requires a waiting period of up to three months. 

'Time might not be on our side'

Alexia and Jovan Serban were married in London, Ont., in 2017. The couple now have two children and want to move back to London with Alexia diagnosed with stage four cancer. (Panageas family)

The family is asking the Ontario government to waive the three-month wait in Alexia's case, due to the grave nature of her diagnosis. 

"Time might not be on our side," said Jovan Serben. "We feel this is a very reasonable request in this case." 

Alexia and Jovan were married in London. Their two children were born in Sweden but they had always planned to eventually settle in London.

The cancer diagnosis has sped up those relocation plans. 

Jovan, Alexia and their two children flew to London on Friday. They will stay with Alexia's parents. 

But until Alexia is covered by OHIP, the family will be on the hook for any medical expenses she incurs here.

"If her health situation gets worse, it could put the whole family in jeopardy," said Jovan Serben.

3-month wait flagged

Alexia Panageas isn't the first former Ontario resident to stumble over the three-month waiting period to get OHIP re-instated after returning home to face a health crisis. 

In 2016, Dan Duma of Windsor came back to Ontario after he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He and his wife had been living and working in Fort McMurray, Alta. 

Duma's doctor had to jump through hoops to get him the end-of-life care he needed, including tapping into some emergency funds. 

Duma, 48, died on July 18, 2016, one month into his three-month waiting period.

His story prompted Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky to put forward a private member's bill called Dan's Law, which would eliminate the waiting period for home and community care for anyone seeking palliative care after moving back to Ontario from another province or territory. 

The bill passed second reading the year Duma died, but hasn't progressed further since. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked if she would support the bill at Queen's Park in February. She said she would commit to changing the regulation.

Dan's Law would not have applied to Alexia Serben's case. She's returned to Ontario from another country, not another province. Also, she is currently seeking access to full OHIP coverage, not specifically home care or end-of-life care. 

CBC News asked the health ministry about Alexia's case, and received this response: 

"The Health Insurance Act provides no discretion for the ministry to waive the three-month waiting period in cases of illness, financial hardship or any other reason other than prescribed in regulation."

However, the Panageas family says it has had contact with the government in the past few days. They are optimistic the government will respond to their request favourably.

London West NDP MPP Peggy Sattler has been working to get the three-month waiting period waived for Alexia. Her staff is also working with the OHIP eligibility review committee to provide an urgent review of her case.

"I think there's a compelling, compassionate case to be made to consider granting an exception for this young woman and her family," she said.

The Panageas family has started a Go Fund Me page with a goal of raising $50,000 to help the family with any medical expenses. As of Thursday, $38,000 had been raised.

In the meantime, John Panageas says for now he's happy to have his family back in London so they can rally together to fight what lies ahead.

"Alexia's inner heart is to be here and come home," he said. "And to battle this disease with her family." 

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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