Manitoba

Manitobans with big U.S. medical bills want action from health minister

Manitobans who live along the U.S. border and are already covered by a special agreement with the state of Minnesota might also want to consider buying private health insurance in the case of an emergency, the province's health minister says.

Residents covered in U.S. under special deal should also consider private insurance, minister says

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen wants to review a deal that gives residents in the southeast of the province emergency coverage at two Minnesota hospitals. Several people from the area have come forward complaining the province refused to pay for coverage they received south of the border. 1:28

Manitobans who live along the U.S. border and are already covered by a special agreement with the state of Minnesota might also want to consider buying private health insurance in the case of an emergency, the province's Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen says.

Several people living in southeastern Manitoba who were left with massive medical bills say the province should pay them back. They also want officials to clarify rules that allow certain border communities to access emergency health-care in the U.S.

On Thursday, the health minister said Manitobans who are "regularly crossing the border for a variety of reasons … I think the people within the health-care system would say it wouldn't be bad to have [additional] insurance."

Goertzen's comments come after 60-year-old Robin Milne spoke publicly about $118,000 in medical bills he was left with after he received emergency treatment in the U.S.

Milne and Andrew Thiessen live near Sprague, Man., and didn't have travel insurance.

Thiessen and Milne were both left to pay thousands of dollars for medical bills they expected would be covered through the Altru Medical System, a longstanding agreement that permits residents in parts of southeast Manitoba to receive emergency medical treatment at hospitals in Roseau or Warroad, Minn.

"I would like my money back, because it's not right that I had to pay," 69-year-old Thiessen said.

Andrew Thiessen: 'I would like my money back, because it's not right that I had to pay.' (CBC)

Goertzen said he feels for the families but for now his hands are tied.

"No minister, me or any of the previous ones, has the legislative, the legal authority, to direct payment under the Health Services Act. It is actually illegal for a minister to direct payment," he said.

Thiessen, a diabetic and cancer survivor, was billed almost Cdn $40,000 for emergency dialysis, while Milne was charged about Cdn $118,000 after suffering a heart attack. Both were initially rushed to hospital in Roseau but eventually treated in Grand Forks, N.D.
Sprague, Man., is about 145 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. Roseau, Minn., is about 25 kilometres southeast of Sprague. Grand Forks, N.D. is about 200 kilometres from Sprague. (Google Maps)

Thiessen sold a third of his land that runs along the Canada-U.S. border in South Junction, Man., to pay his bills. Milne's wife has taken on a second job and the couple is considering taking out a second mortgage on their home.

Doctor's orders

On Sept. 14, 2015, Thiessen's wife rushed him to hospital in Roseau, Minn., when she noticed he wasn't quite himself.

Thiessen, then 67, was experiencing kidney failure.

Make it clear in the law books that we're not allowed to go to Grand Forks if we're not allowed to.- Andrew Thiessen

When the coupled arrived in Roseau, a hospital doctor determined she was unable to help and would have to send them to Winnipeg, Thiessen said.

But neither St. Boniface Hospital nor the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg had beds free for the dialysis treatment he sorely needed, he said.

The Minnesota doctor sent Thiessen to a hospital in Grand Forks, just over 100 kilometres southwest of Roseau.

"She said, 'In this kind of case you're covered,' so what do I do? If I didn't get help I was going to die. It was one or the other and I chose life," Thiessen said.

'Make it clear'

He spent four nights at the hospital receiving treatment Thiessen says saved his life. The doctors wanted him to stay even longer, but the thought of possibly being stuck with the bill was still causing him stress.

I voted for him, but I don't know if he's there to help the people, I'll be very honest.- Andrew Thiessen

"I told the doctor, 'Let me go home, I don't know about this bill, I don't know about staying here.' She said, 'No we've got to keep you here another day.' I said, 'Please let me go,' because I said, 'I think I am feeling OK.' She did let me go but she didn't want to let me go."

He received bills from the Grand Forks hospital and a collections agency at a combined cost of US$28,939.46. The province refused to pay and Thiessen's appeal to the Manitoba Health Appeal Board was later rejected, although the province ended up covering about $2,000 for the room he stayed in.

The province explained that Thiessen had chosen to go to Grand Forks, which isn't covered under the Altru Agreement, and therefore he wouldn't be getting reimbursed.

"My feeling is make it clear in the law books that we're not allowed to go to Grand Forks if we're not allowed to. But there's a grey area there and they never explain it."

Goertzen said there is obviously considerable confusion about the limitations of the deal if American health-care workers are advising patients to go to hospitals outside of Minnesota.

A Manitoba man is calling for the province to pay $118,000 in medical bills for an emergency heart procedure that he says he was forced to get in the U.S. as he waited for the province to airlift him to a Winnipeg hospital. 2:58

In Milne's case, he was rushed to hospital in Roseau one day last October. Doctors there couldn't provide the vital heart stent procedure he needed and called St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg to send a Lifeflight emergency airplane down to pick him up.

After 90 minutes waiting, with no word on an estimated time of arrival, Milne's doctor advised him to get treatment in Grand Forks, about 150 kilometres away. A U.S.-based emergency service flew Milne to Grand Forks, where he spent two nights. 

Milne later received flight and medical bills amounting to $118,000 the government refused to pay because of where he received the treatment.

"I really do think it is incumbent on [the Manitoba government] to take care of it for us," Milne said Wednesday.

Review needed

Goertzen now wants a formal review of the Altru Agreement and the appeal process available to Manitobans who are refused coverage.

There have been about nine such appeals in recent years, Goertzen says, "the vast majority" of which were denied under the previous NDP government.

Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen suggested that anyone who is travelling into the U.S. regularly should consider purchasing travel or private insurance. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

He also wants to ensure medical professionals in the U.S. and people in places like Sprague fully understand what coverage they have.

Goertzen said there are several known cases where Manitobans who don't live in the southeast have taken advantage of the deal when it wasn't meant for them.

As for Thiessen, he said he has lost confidence in Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen.

"I voted for him, but I don't know if he's there to help the people, I'll be very honest."

The province has not confirmed whether or not it will repay Milne or Thiessen's medical bills.

It isn't clear when the review of the cross-border agreement will take place.