British Columbia healthcare waiting period forces immigrants to choose

A new study shows that a three-month waiting period in British Columbia for regional health benefits is hurting female and male migrants based on ethnicity, forcing them to choose between basic health care or food and other necessities.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Center for Gender Equality and Sexual Health have found that without access to routine check-ups and timely testing during the waiting period, especially for expectant parents and newborns, health conditions can deteriorate and have lifelong consequences.

With clear evidence of the damage done to poor and often racist immigrants by British Columbia policy, a coalition of 19 immigrant rights, poverty reduction, civil liberties and labor boycotts called for the policy to be permanently abolished.

“We can talk for several days about the health implications of this policy,” said Omar Chu, one of the organizers of Sanctuary Health in the Lower Mainland. “At the same time, it’s also an emotional impact for people who are struggling to obtain permanent residency, being ineligible for the universal public health care that many Canadians consider a core value.”

When someone moves to British Columbia, either from another province or from another country on any type of visa, they are not eligible for basic provincial health coverage for the remainder of their month of arrival, plus an additional two calendar months.

British Columbia is the only province with a waiting period without exception for newborns, pregnancy-related health care and emergency, as do Quebec and Ontario. Other counties do not have a waiting period. New Brunswick canceled the waiting period in 2010.

With the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020, British Columbia canceled the three-month waiting period in response to the pandemic and briefly extended MSP coverage for temporary foreign workers.

When the measures ended in July 2020, Health Secretary Adrian Dix defended the waiting period.

“We have a 90-day rule which means people can’t just come here and on the first day get health care, and get that health care at the cost of everyone in BC,” he said. “It is fundamental to the way we operate our public health care system in British Columbia.”

Tyee has reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Health for comment.

Zhou said human rights advocates have been seeking to end the waiting period for decades and that the pandemic has demonstrated the urgency of change.

“With the number of cases rising again, there is no reason to discourage people from accessing the health care system,” he said.

In an open letter sent to Prime Minister John Horgan, opposition leader Shirley Bond and Dix, Sanctuary Health and 18 other organizations said the policy violates a number of human rights agreements.

The letter reads, “Immigrant women view and experience politics as deeply xenophobic, making them feel unwelcome and perpetuating mistrust and barriers to accessing needed health care for women.”

Immigrants and migrant workers based on ethnicity often have jobs in frontline services and food processing and manufacturing, where they are most likely to contract COVID-19.

The pandemic has also caused months and years of delays in processing visas, work and residency permits. Immigrants’ eligibility for an MSP lapses each time their status occurs.

If a person’s student visa expires before the work permit is granted due to epidemic delays, that deadline means they have to wait three months again to cover, Zhou said.

And many can’t afford or are not eligible for private insurance to fill the gap, because pregnancy and other common health problems are pre-existing conditions that are not covered.

The waiting period for health coverage also applies to newborns whose parents are not yet eligible for MSP.

Lack of care for women and children during the waiting period leads to the need for more expensive and invasive care once they are insured, said study co-author Shira Goldenberg, director of research education at the center and associate professor of global health at Simon Fraser University.

“There are health care needs that can’t wait, like pregnancy, and that puts families in an impossible situation,” Goldenberg said in an interview.

“Many of the women ended up with more significant problems due to delayed care.”

While some agencies can help close health care gaps, the need to find solutions increases feelings of racism and xenophobia, many of the 47 women interviewed in the study said they encountered in the health care system.

The result, Goldenberg said, is that immigrants feel less deserving of care and less likely to seek it when needed in the future.

Chu and Goldenberg hope the province will act urgently on this evidence as the Omicron-led Fifth Wave rush in BC.

“The waiting period policy does not align with the values ​​that I think most British Columbians believe we hold to in terms of being an inclusive and welcoming province, and so we have here one of the most xenophobic healthcare policies in Canada,” Goldenberg said.

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