Manitoba repeals universal health care for international students

A revision to provincial policy will see international post-secondary students lose access to universal health care this fall.

Change to Health Services Insurances Act comes into effect Sept. 1, could save province $3.1M

Efe Erhie, a first-year international student from Nigeria at the University of Manitoba, said free health care was an important factor when he was deciding where to attend university. (CBC)

Post-secondary students from abroad will start the fall 2018 semester without universal health care in Manitoba, to the dismay of those from far away who have come to the Prairies at already high costs.

"Since it was free here, it made it much easier, less complicated than having to worry about paying," said Efe Erhie, one of several international students at the University of Manitoba who said free health care was one of the reasons they came to study in Winnipeg.

"It was a big issue when I was considering Manitoba."

On Friday, the province's Progressive Conservative government passed an amendment to the Health Services Insurances Act repealing a 2012 clause that gave college and university students from abroad access to universal health care.

"International students, their spouses, and dependents will no longer be eligible for provincial health insurance," a spokesperson with Education Minister Ian Wishart's office said in a statement Tuesday. The change comes into effect Sept. 1, 2018.

 Therefore, as a very rough estimate, the ballpark costs for individual health coverage for international students can range from $2,400 per year, up to $3,600 per year with enhancements.

A spokesperson for Wishart said even with the changes, Manitoba remains a "very viable option" for post-secondary studies.

'Cruel and inhumane'

The former NDP government instituted universal health care for international students in 2012.

A spokesperson with Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen confirmed March 14 his department was reviewing the policy. Dropping universal health care for international students is expected to save the province $3.1 million per year.

The review was initiated as part of a suite of policy changes to the health-care system brought in after Premier Brian Pallister won the spring 2016 provincial election.

Dele Ojewole, a former international student who became a Canadian citizen in 2015, said the move will hurt Manitoba.

Flanked by other international students earlier this month at the Manitoba legislature, Dele Ojewole says the cut to health-care coverage will hurt international students. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"Charging them for health-care insurance is a very, very cruel and inhumane behaviour by this government and also a lack of vision," said Ojewole, interim-chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students' Manitoba chapter.

Currently international students who have lived in Canada for at least six months, have a valid Citizenship and Immigration study permit and can prove they are studying at a local post-secondary institution could apply for health cards. Those students, along with their kids and spouses, could then access the same services as those born in Canada.

Under the new system, those with work permits covering at least 12 months remain eligible, as do any children born to international students while in Canada. But all other international students will have to buy private health insurance, which the province estimates will cost about $400 a year per student, or $1,200 annually for a family.

A spokesperson for Great-West Life, which insured international students in Manitoba until 2012 and continues to do so in other provinces, said as a very rough estimate, the ballpark costs for individual health coverage for international students can range from $2,400 per year up to $4,500 per year with enhancements. 

"The basic plan offers temporary coverage of expenses that would normally be paid under a provincial health plan," said Brad Fedorchuk, Great-West Life's senior vice-president of group customer experience and marketing, in a statement.

"Some examples are ambulance services, doctor visits, lab services, in-hospital drugs and accommodations, eye exams and emergency dental services."

'Drive away' students

Ojewole, who was an international student from 2010-12, said such a fee is only the base premium and things like ambulance trips and other services would still come with big bills.

"This is total misinformation; this is a total misconception by this government," he said, adding the province failed to consult with students and international students about the changes. 

Ojewole said stripping health care could "drive away" international students from studying in Manitoba, a point echoed by NDP Leader Wab Kinew, and international U of M business students Ingrid Diaslara and Mabel Quecano.

U of M business student Ingrid Diaslara said free health care was one of the main reasons she came to Manitoba. (CBC)

"I think it will be like detrimental for Manitoba," said Diaslara, who came from Venezuela and paid $12,000 in tuition for a one-year applied business management program.

"It took me by surprise. I didn't expect that because Manitoba is a very open place for international students."

Quecano said part of the reason she and her husband came to Winnipeg from Colombia to study was free health care.

She says the change could discourage students like her from coming to Manitoba, and she doesn't yet know what her family will do come September.

Mabel Quecano says back in Colombia, Manitoba was recommended as a good place to study because of the low cost of living and health benefits. (CBC)

"It's true that they [the province] could save money, but I think they can earn more with international students and their families," said Quecano.

"They come here, will spend — we move the economy in this province, for example. We use public transportation, we pay rent, we pay tuition and we have many expenses here."

18% of U of M students international

International students make up 18 per cent of the overall U of M student population, according to a university spokesperson, and about 13 per cent of University of Winnipeg students. Enrolment among international students increased by almost four per cent last year at U of M, from 5,074 in 2016 to 5,268 in 2017.

International students often pay much more than their domestic counterparts. For context, an international U of M business student pays about $18,500 per year for tuition, compared to $5,800 for their domestic counterparts.

Post-secondary institutions use that money to help keep costs lower for domestic students and that could be impacted by the health-care cut, Kinew said.

"At the end of the day cutting health coverage for international students will likely lead to higher tuition for domestic students, because it's going to mean that there's less money in the post-secondary system if our institutions are less competitive at recruiting international students," Kinew said.

"All of a sudden other provinces may look more attractive, and so that's the concern on this issue."

'We will continue to fight'

Manitoba Education and Training has "informally notified" universities and colleges about the health-care cut, a spokesperson says, and will release more information to schools in the coming days.

"It is our hope that offering advance notice will assist institutions to begin the process of reviewing internal policies and inform staff of the impending changes to international student accessibility to provincial health insurance," the spokesperson said.

Ojewole says students will continue to push the government between now and September.

"The province will continue to hear from us. We will not back down in any way; we will continue to fight for the thousands of [international] students in this province."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC. He has won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade, and a 2023 Prairie region award for an audio documentary about a Chinese-Canadian father passing down his love for hockey to the next generation of Asian Canadians.

With files from Kristin Annable and Austin Grabish