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Insurance provider agrees to cover $35K medical bill for Manitoba mom who was international student

A Manitoba mother of three will no longer have to answer calls from collection agencies or worry about paying thousands of dollars in medical bills, after her private insurer agreed to retroactively cover the costs — following her decision to go public with her story.

But advocates say even though her bills will be covered, the woman’s case highlights a major gap in Canada’s health-care system.

Ololade Fashina, 29, owed almost $35,000 after giving birth to her son during a short window where her student medical insurance had lapsed and her work permit hadn’t arrived.

The situation left the former international student feeling desperate, helpless and worried about how she could ever pay off this debt.

“I don’t make this money in a year,” she told CBC last week, before learning her insurer would cover the costs.

That bill, she said, would “affect my three kids.… They won’t have the good life I want to give them.”

Fashina’s ordeal began after she went to a clinic in January 2021, when she was 29 weeks pregnant with her third child.

Doctors noticed her placenta was no longer producing nutrients — a huge risk to the baby. Fashina was told she would have to be admitted and if she left, her baby could die in utero. 

insurance provider agrees to cover 35k medical bill for manitoba mom who was international student
Ayodeji was born about two month premature during the short window where his mother’s medical insurance lapsed and her work permit was delayed. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the young mother, originally from Nigeria. She had graduated from the University of Manitoba in October 2020 and applied for a work permit.

Processing of those permits was delayed at the time, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her student medical insurance had been extended to cover her until the end of 2020, but after that, she would be without coverage until the permit arrived.

Fashina says she knew she didn’t have insurance coverage when she went to hospital in January 2021.

But “[the doctor] said, ‘The baby is not OK.'”

She wound up staying eight days at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg before giving birth to a baby boy, Ayodeji, who was delivered prematurely on Jan. 15.

Exception made for ‘unique situation’: insurer

Fashina’s work permit arrived five days later.

Within a few months, the bills started coming.

She owed more than $33,000 for her stay at St. Boniface Hospital, plus over $1,000 for her initial consultation with the Winnipeg Clinic and for individual doctors who attended to her during the birth.

Fashina, who had come to Canada in 2015 to study criminology at the University of Manitoba, had no family here to support her and couldn’t fathom how she could pay the bill while supporting her three children. 

And then the collection agency calls started coming.

She began to get daily calls telling her she needed to start paying $900 per month. One collections agent told her that she should use her Canada child benefit cheques to cover the bill. 

She contacted CBC after running out of options, which included consulting with a lawyer, she said.

CBC News made several inquiries to the federal and provincial governments, and to Manitoba Blue Cross, which provides health coverage for international students.

In a statement emailed to CBC last Friday afternoon, the insurer said it would cover the costs retroactively.

“This is an extremely unique situation and Manitoba Blue Cross greatly sympathizes with Ms. Fashina,” wrote David Tompkins, director of sales at Manitoba Blue Cross.

“In learning of this situation and in keeping with our commitment to supporting international students, Manitoba Blue Cross is making an exception with respect to Ms. Fashina’s situation.”

The news was a huge relief for Fashina, who said a representative called her and told her to forward all her bills.

“I was so worried about it,” she said after receiving the phone call. “This is the best day ever.”

Coverage needs to be universal: advocates

One advocate says while Fashina’s story has a happy ending, it points to a problem in Canada’s universal access to health care.

“It’s wonderful news that Blue Cross is going to be covering the expenses,” said Lindsay Larios, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba who studies precarious migration.

“It should still be concerning, however, that she had to go through this stressful ordeal when trying to access something as basic and fundamental as health care.”

Judith Oviosun, a campaign co-ordinator for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students, says there used to be safeguards in place to close these gaps.

insurance provider agrees to cover 35k medical bill for manitoba mom who was international student 1
Judith Oviosun, the provincial campaigns co-ordinator for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students, says Fashina’s situation wouldn’t have happened under previous universal health coverage for international students. (CTV pool camera)

Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government cut universal health care for international post-secondary students in 2018 to save an estimated $3.1 million. International students now pay a fee for coverage through the Manitoba International Student Health Plan.

“When we [international students] had health care coverage, it was really easy to access health care like everyone else,” said Oviosun, who came to Canada as an international student from Nigeria in 2016.

“We never had issues as an international student, like having to pay over huge amounts of money while trying to access health care.”

She and Larios are part of the Healthcare for All Manitoba coalition, a grassroots organization that lobbies for universal health care coverage for everyone, regardless of immigration status. One of its main goals is the reinstatement of universal health care for international post-secondary students.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Health said when there was universal coverage for international students, they allowed up to 90 days extension for health coverage in circumstances where someone had completed their studies and was waiting for the approval of a work permit.

A request for an interview with Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon was declined. 

Her spokesperson, Draper Houston, said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on Fashina’s situation and declined to answer when asked whether the Tories would reinstate universal coverage.

Jamie Moses, the NDP’s critic for advanced education, said if his party forms government, it will reinstate the universal health coverage for international students.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)

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