Manitoba permanent resident waiting for health card feels 'cheated' after bill for ER visit

Joanna Johnson-Audu says she was billed $337 for a July visit to St. Boniface Hospital's emergency department because she didn't have a health card. She applied for one more than four months ago, but has yet to receive it because of pandemic backlogs.

Joanna Johnson-Audu was charged $337 because she didn't have a health card, which she applied for in April

Joanna Johnson-Audu was billed $337 for a visit to the St. Boniface Hospital emergency department in July, because she didn't have a Manitoba health card. She had applied for one almost four months earlier. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A Manitoba permanent resident says she was billed more than $300 for a visit to a hospital's emergency department because she didn't have a health card — something she applied for months earlier, but hasn't yet received because of pandemic backlogs.

"I feel kind of ignored, because legally I should be able to … [get] a health card," said Joanna Johnson-Audu. "I am a permanent resident who [is] legally entitled to it."

On July 31, the 19-year-old went to the emergency room at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital because she was experiencing shortness of breath. 

She was treated, but later billed $337 for the visit because she did not have a Manitoba Health card. She had applied for one on April 8, but still had not received it when she went to the hospital, almost four months later.

"I feel cheated," she said. 

'My bill is not huge, thankfully,' said Johnson-Audu, 'but it could have been a more dire situation for someone else, and their bill could have been much higher.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Johnson-Audu came to Canada as an international student in October 2018 to study neuroscience at the University of Winnipeg. She became a Canadian permanent resident in August 2021, after her family applied to immigrate to Canada from Nigeria. 

At the time, she was temporarily living in Calgary with her family and taking U of W classes remotely. Since she didn't have a Manitoba address at that point, she couldn't apply for a Manitoba Health card.

Permanent residents are entitled to most social benefits that Canadian citizens receive, including health-care coverage.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the province said due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Manitoba has a backlog of approximately three to four months for processing applications for new or replacement health cards.

Applications for health cards, and other requests, are processed according to the date they're received, the spokesperson said.

The province did not say how long it normally takes to process health-card applications, nor when the backlog is expected to be cleared. 

Johnson-Audu said while she'll be able to pay the hospital bill, "it could have been a more dire situation for someone else, and their bill could have been much higher." 

She said until she gets a health card, she's worried about what could happen if she had to visit the hospital for an even more serious problem.

"It's either I go to the hospital and get … slapped with this huge bill that I can never be able to really pay off, or I just stay here [at home] and suffer." 

'Lost in the bureaucracy' 

Alastair Clarke, an immigration lawyer in Winnipeg, says the provincial government has an obligation to ensure people like Johnson-Audu have access to health care and other services, "and that they don't get lost in the bureaucracy."

"When you have an international student, and when you have immigrants and skilled workers coming … they've been contributing to Manitoba, they're settled in their community," he said.

"If they have a medical emergency, they should be able to go to the hospital without having to worry."

A man in a suit stands in an office, with artwork showing a red maple leaf behind him.
Winnipeg immigration lawyer Alastair Clarke says the province has an obligation to ensure people like Johnson-Audu have access to health care and other services. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Johnson-Audu says after her experience, she is thinking about Ukrainian and Afghan refugees coming to the province.

"It'll be really stressful for them," she said, since the province "already can't already process the … [health card applications] they have right now."

"It would definitely better to not have a bill just come in, especially when you are already a permanent resident and you are legally entitled to get this service for free," Johnson-Audu said. 

Manitoba health card delays prove costly

7 months ago
Duration 2:10
A Manitoba permanent resident says she was billed more than $300 for a visit to a hospital's emergency department because she didn't have a Manitoba health card. It's something Joanna Johnson-Audu applied for months earlier, but hasn't received yet because of pandemic backlogs.


Lamia Abozaid is a reporter with CBC Manitoba.