Snowbirds strike back against Ontario’s travel insurance cut

by Leo Almazora07 Jan 2020

Ontario’s move to get rid of out-of-country health insurance is not sitting well with a group representing Canadians who spend part of their year in sunnier climes.

Effective January 1, the province cut its program to provide medical coverage outside of Canada. The program covered up to $400 per day for out-of-country inpatient services that require higher levels of care, and up to $50 per day for emergency outpatient and doctor services.

The following day, the Canadian Snowbird Association announced that it was seeking an injunction to hold off the changes that came into effect on New Year’s Day.

“We are filing this legal challenge on behalf of our members, and all Ontario travellers, in order to protect their right to out-of-country emergency medical care, which is enshrined in the Canada Health Act,” said Karen Huestis, who is president of the association, in a statement. “These cuts are an egregious violation of the portability requirement of the CHA and must be addressed head-on.”

The legality of the move was also questioned by provincial NDP health critic France Gelinas, who wrote a letter to the federal government last fall asking them to step in.

“I work at Queen's Park, there are more lawyers per square inch than anywhere else, and every single one I've talked to all said the same thing: It violates the Canada Health Act,” Gelinas told the Canadian Press. “It's one of the five tenets ... it needs to be there.”

Plans to scrap out-of-country coverage were announced last May by Health Minister Christine Elliott, who said it was costly and did not provide value to taxpayers. The announcement came after a six-day public consultation.

More recently, a spokeswoman for Elliott echoed the minister’s statement, noting that the program paid out only five cents of every dollar claimed. “With this limited coverage and low reimbursement rate, OHIP-eligible Ontarians who do not purchase private travel health insurance can be left with catastrophically large bills to pay,” Hayley Chazan told the Canadian Press in an email.

Elliott has said that it costs Ontario $2.8 million to administer some $9 million in claim payments through the program every year.

“If all publicly financed reimbursement of out-of-country physician and hospital services is eliminated, private health insurance premiums for travellers will inevitably rise for all Ontario residents,” Former Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor warned in a July letter to Elliott. “Even modest increases could pose a hardship for some individuals.”

That’s a fear held by the Canadian Snowbird Association, who asserted that travel medical insurance premiums will rise across the province as a result of the cut. That will spell a blow to the budgets of some people, particularly seniors that need it most, the association said.

“We estimate that premiums are going to increase by about seven-and-a-half per cent,” Evan Rachkovsky, the association’s director of Research and Communications, told CBC News.