Border-town Manitobans balk at suggestion they should buy extra health insurance

Border-town residents are perplexed with the suggestion they should buy extra health insurance after some were left with huge medical bills following emergency stays in the U.S.

Health minister recommends Manitobans near border get insurance after several people incur huge medical bills

Andrew Thiessen and others were forced to pay thousands in U.S. medical bills they thought would be covered by the Manitoba government under a special deal. (CBC)

Residents of a Manitoba town near the U.S. border are perplexed with the suggestion they should buy extra health insurance after some were left with huge medical bills following emergency stays in the U.S.

Several people in the Sprague area of southeastern Manitoba have been hit with thousands of dollars in U.S. medical bills in recent years that the province has refused to cover, despite a special agreement that gives residents in some border communities emergency coverage at two hospitals in Minnesota.

On Thursday, Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said any Manitoban who regularly crosses the border should consider getting private health insurance.

But Robin Milne, 60, and Andrew Thiessen, 69, say it isn't fair for the minister to tell taxpayers in the southeast to foot the bill or buy more insurance, especially after what they went through.

"I wonder what he would do if he was stuck with a big bill like that?" said Thiessen, who was left with almost $40,000 Cdn in medical bills from an emergency stay in Grand Forks, N.D., approximately 200 kilometres from Sprague. 

"If I could've, I would've gone home and died."

Border hopping

The men live near Sprague, a small community about 145 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, where many people have dual citizenship, cross the border daily for work and pay taxes in both countries.

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)

Manitobans in Sprague have emergency medical coverage in Roseau and Warroad, Minn. through the province's Altru Agreement, but not in Grand Forks.

Milne and Thiessen sought emergency medical attention in Roseau only to be rerouted to Grand Forks when Winnipeg health services failed to get them the life-saving treatment they needed by sending a Lifeflight air ambulance.

Both men say it was never communicated to them that emergency treatment in Grand Forks wouldn't be covered by the province, but Milne doesn't feel like he had much choice anyway.

"We did what we had to do. My life was on the line," added Milne, who was stuck with about $118,000 Cdn in bills. 

"Did Minister Goertzen expect me and my family to sit in Roseau, twiddling our thumbs and hoping for the best, waiting for Lifeflight to come out ... to pick me up? Does he want somebody's life on his hands?"

Province won't pay

The men were disappointed to hear Goertzen say he doesn't have the legal power to divert funds for the purposes of reimbursing people in their situations.

Milne's wife has taken on a second job and the couple is considering re-mortgaging their home after Robin's emergency heart treatment in the U.S.

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 has already paid U.S. bills from emergency kidney treatment he received in 2015, although he was forced to sell land in the process that he planned to pass down to his children.

Goertzen said after hearing the stories of people like Thiessen and Milne, he wants a formal review of the deal and the appeal process accessible to Manitobans. It isn't clear when the review will take place.

Review on the way

The Altru Agreement has been around for years, although the most recent incarnation was revised in 1998. It permits people in some border towns in the southeast to have emergency services received across the border covered by the province, but only if they access the service in Roseau or Warroad, Minn.

Thiessen's appeal to the province, which was rejected, is one of about nine to be filed in the past decade, Goertzen said.

Goertzen said there is a obviously a lot of confusion among border-town residents and U.S. medical professionals regarding the limits of the Altru Agreement.

Robin Milne says he is grateful to be alive after an emergency heart surgery that forced him to Grand Forks, N.D., last fall. But he is now staring down $118,000 in hospital medical bills Manitoba Health has refused to cover. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

But Milne contends that doctors in Roseau aren't to blame.

"If he's saying they don't understand the protocol, they do. They've been doing this for years and years and years," he said.

"The more I think about it the angrier I get," Milne said. "They're just blaming whoever they can to get off the hook for this and it's just unforgivable."

Milne said it's because his doctor knew what she was doing that he is alive today.

Rushed to Roseau

He was rushed to hospital in Roseau on Oct. 2, 2016, while suffering a heart attack. The Roseau hospital doctor determined Milne needed a heart stent procedure that she couldn't perform. She contacted officials at St. Boniface Hospital who said they would send a Lifeflight emergency airplane down to Roseau to bring Milne back to Winnipeg.

Ninety minutes passed with no word from officials in Winnipeg, so the doctor told Milne he had to be transported to hospital in Grand Forks.

There has to be the compassionate side of it. That's why we live in Canada. We care.- Robin Milne

If one of Manitoba's Lifeflight air ambulances is unable to pick up a patient in Minnesota and take them back to a Canadian hospital, Manitoba Health maintains medical recommendations and treatment must be made over the phone until a plane is available to get the patient.

Thiessen was also rushed to hospital in Roseau, when his kidneys were failing. The doctor there called two hospitals in Winnipeg but both said they didn't have any dialysis beds free. Thiessen was sent to Grand Forks and assured by his doctor he would be covered, but that wasn't the case.​

Thiessen, who is diabetic and a cancer survivor, continues to access care in Steinbach, Man., 90 kilometres northwest of Sprague, because he is scared of more big bills.

Milne won't be buying extra insurance. He said people in Winnipeg or Steinbach aren't expected to buy American health or travel coverage, just in case. "[So] why would we?"

"I think it's putting us at a disadvantage, in a different classification of citizens here in this part of the province," Milne said. "There has to be the compassionate side of it. That's why we live in Canada. We care."

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. 1:59

About the Author

Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, social justice, health and more. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email