Manitoba

Manitoba man stuck with $118K in medical bills after emergency treatment in U.S.

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.

Rural resident says heart attack forced him to access services in U.S. and province won't foot bill

Robin Milne says he is grateful to be alive after an emergency heart procedure in 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)

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.

Robin Milne, 60, lives in Sprague, Man., a community tucked in the southeastern corner of the province and about four kilometres from the Canada-U.S. border. After experiencing chest pain on Oct. 2, he rushed to the closest hospital, across the border in Minnesota. It turned out he was having a heart attack.

"I was in so much pain, it was just awful," he said. "I got smacked really hard."

It's just about fairness. [We should] have the same coverage everyone else in the province gets and expects.- Robin Milne

It's common for people in Sprague, and other Manitoba communities along the border, to cross over to get medical treatment in the U.S., and the province has a long-standing deal with Minnesota to cover the medical costs in emergency cases.

Milne said the doctor treating him at the hospital in Roseau, Minn. — about 25 kilometres from Sprague — told him he needed emergency treatment for his heart and tried to make arrangements to fly the patient back to Manitoba for it.

When 90 minutes passed with no information other than the promise an air ambulance was on its way, Milne says he was forced to make a decision to risk the wait or get the life-saving treatment in North Dakota. It was an easy one to make, he said.

"I want to live as long as I can so I can be part of my family's life," said Milne. "I have the best four little grandkids you'll ever meet ... That's what it's all about to me."

U.S.-based ValleyMed flew him to Grand Forks, N.D., a short time later, where he received a heart stent and spent two nights in hospital.

​Milne said he started to feel better almost instantly.

A bill for about $35,900 US from ValleyMed landed in his mailbox a few weeks later, as did a second bill for $47,000 US for the hospital costs in Grand Forks. Along with other bills, the total cost adds up to about $118,000 Cdn, says Milne.

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

He says the province told him that because he had elected to go to North Dakota, the Manitoba government would not be covering his expenses.

To pay the bill, Milne's wife has now taken a second job and the couple is mulling whether to re-mortgage their home or pull savings out of their retirement fund. But he argues they shouldn't have to.

"I don't want to have that on my back," Milne said.

"It's just about fairness," he said. "[We should] have the same coverage everyone else in the province gets and expects."

Agreement between Manitoba, Minnesota

Manitoba's long-standing deal with the state of Minnesota, known as the Altru Agreement, allows residents in Manitoba's southeastern-most communities to have their medical costs covered in Roseau or Warroad, Minn., in the case of an emergency, a spokesperson with Manitoba Health said.

About 850 Manitobans access emergency services through those Minnesota hospitals every year, according to the province.

The agreement doesn't apply to other hospitals or cover transportation to other sites, but Milne argues Manitoba should consider extending it to Grand Forks — a city about 200 kilometres southwest of Sprague.

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

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)

He argues that other residents of southeastern Manitoba likely face similar challenges getting the province to pay medical bills.

Provincial health officials said they were unable to comment on the details of the case. 

"The typical process is that a referring facility makes arrangements to ensure a bed for the patient at the receiving facility, then calls for transport," a Manitoba Health official wrote in an email to CBC News.

According to Manitoba Health, if a Lifeflight air ambulance can't immediately pick a patient up from the Minnesota hospitals to bring them back to Canada, treatment and medical recommendations are supposed to be made over the phone until they can get to the patient, Manitoba Health told CBC.​

Milne said he's upset that he hasn't received a response to letters he sent in early January to Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen or his local provincial representative, Dennis Smook (MLA for La Verendrye). 

Manitoba health critic Matt Wiebe (NDP MLA for Concordia) believes the province should pay.

"The Pallister government should pay that bill and ensure that no other Manitobans face the same traumatic shock when fighting for their lives," Wiebe said in a statement Thursday.

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

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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 bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.