Manitoba

Though few are aware, newcomers in Manitoba without health coverage can access COVID-19 testing, treatment

The province says screening, testing and treatment for COVID-19 will be covered, whether patients have coverage or not — but that information isn't widely known, even among non-profits that work directly with newcomers.

Newcomer advocates concerned information about coverage of screening and treatment not accessible

Screening, testing and treatment for COVID-19 will be provided at no charge, a Manitoba Health spokesperson says, whether or not the person has coverage through Manitoba Health. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Winnipeg's Joseph Park anxiously sought information on how his South Korean parents-in-law, who are not yet permanent residents and don't have health coverage, would fare if they contracted the virus. 

"If they go to see a doctor … or whatever, they have to pay their medical expenses from their own pocket," Park said, adding he's considered starting to save money in case they contract the novel coronavirus.

"At least I want to know what happens if they need to go see the doctor because of coronavirus," he said. "I cannot find out any correct information from anywhere."

According to Manitoba legislation, health insurance is limited to residents of the province, defined as someone who is legally entitled to be in Canada, makes their home in Manitoba and is physically present in the province for at least six months in a calendar year.

However, a Manitoba Health spokesperson told CBC News in an email that screening, testing and treatment for COVID-19 will be covered by the province, regardless of whether patients have a health card or not.

But that information hasn't been made widely available, even among non-profits that work directly with newcomers.

Seid Ahmed, the refugee response co-ordinator for the Manitoba Association for Newcomer Serving Organizations, says people have come to him wrought with anxiety over COVID-19 — especially those who have arrived in the last few weeks, because they don't yet have health coverage in the province.

"You're not sure what to do if you don't have a Manitoba health card," he said.

Manitoba health cards are needed to access most health services here, but may be difficult for some newcomers to obtain during the coronavirus pandemic. (Government of Manitoba)

Ahmed has been been pressing the provincial government to better meet the medical needs of newcomers to the province for more than a year, including making it easier to access a health card.

Up until last year, health card applicants only needed proof of their citizenship or permanent residency in Canada.

Now, Manitoba's health department requires proof they live in the province, like a lease agreement, a document confirming employment or a notarized letter from a landlord.

In the midst of a pandemic, though, getting documents notarized is very difficult. And many newcomers stay with family or rent month-to-month, and so may not have documents like leases.

"For a lot of immigrants, this is very challenging," Ahmed said. "It's very difficult to establish your identity as a Manitoba resident."

At the beginning of April, MANSO sent a letter to Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, as well as the health minister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, asking for clarity on how newly arrived refugees, who have no way of meeting these requirements to get health cards during the pandemic, can access testing and treatment for COVID-19.

"We haven't received any formal response from the premier's office, but I think it would be nice to have clear communication about accessing COVID testing and treatment," Ahmed said.

In an email, a Manitoba Health spokesperson said "screening, testing and treatment for COVID-19 will be provided at no charge, whether or not the person has coverage through Manitoba Health.

"People seeking assessment or testing should call Health Links-Info Santé first or be referred by their primary care provider."

CBC News could not find information pertaining to the caveat in the province's legislation.

Ahmed welcomes the news from the province, but wants that information to be more accessible.

"This is an important step towards equitable access to health coverage that helps us contain COVID 19," he said. 

"This information needs to be clearly communicated with the general public and has to be available on their website."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk

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