Universities scramble to find health insurance for international students after provincial cut

Winnipeg's universities are searching for ways to provide private health insurance to international students after the province cut off their coverage.
Dele Ojewole says few students can afford to pay upfront for private health insurance. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Winnipeg's universities are searching for ways to provide private health insurance to international students after the province cut off their coverage.

However, a student spokesperson says that help might not be enough to keep the students from relocating to provinces where that support exists. And ultimately, Dele Ojewole says, losing out on the economic impact that international students provide could be even more detrimental to Manitoba.

"With the elimination of health care, right now there's nothing keeping them in Manitoba anymore. It's not really a province to have an affordable education system," said Ojewole, a former international student from Nigeria and now the interim president of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students.

Private health insurance requires students to pay upfront for care, something few can afford, he says, adding international students already pay three times the tuition that local students do.

The former NDP government instituted universal health care for college and university students from abroad in 2012.

Last week, the Progressive Conservatives passed an amendment to the Health Services Insurances Act repealing that clause. When it takes effect in September it is expected to save the province $3.1 million a year.

However, Ojewole points out, a report from Global Affairs Canada, which lists the positive impact of having international students studying in Canada.

"After accounting for the Canadian scholarships and bursaries, total annual expenditure of international students including their visiting families and friends, contributed almost $11.4 billion to economic activities in Canada," the report from 2016 reads.

In Manitoba, there were 8,385 international students in 2016. Their total annual spending was calculated at $220.8 million.

John Danakas, a spokesman for the University of Manitoba, said the university "is aware of the level of concern and confusion now among international students, and would like to do something for them to alleviate that stress."

The school's administration is exploring ways to address new health coverage for 2018-19 in its upcoming budget and, in the long term, will work with other post-secondary institutions to find the "best possible coverage."

The University of Winnipeg echoed those comments in an email to CBC News.

"In this time of transition, UWinnipeg will work with students and insurance providers to determine the best way forward to mitigate the impact of this decision," the email says. "Our operating budget will be presented to the Board of Regents later this spring."