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What International Students Need to Ask about Studying in Canada (Part 2)

Let’s dispense with one myth that is propagated widely by those who think they know Canada’s health care system. It’s not “free”—and it’s not cheap. Next to the United States, which is in its own league of super-high costs, Canada’s health care system is among the top four or five most expensive in the world. Even a routine visit to a hospital emergency room may cost an international student $1,000 or more, so understand your health insurance plan options well before you leave home.

First, Canada does not have one universal health care system but 13, each administered by individual provinces or territories. And though they are required by federal law to provide unlimited, comprehensive care (no pre-existing conditions restrictions), they don’t cover everything—such as elective cosmetic surgery, routine eye and dental care, annual checkups, chiropractic visits, or physical therapy. Even prescription drug benefits are limited. Consequently, most Canadians find it necessary to buy supplemental health insurance or have it provided to them through employee or pension plans. 

Some, but not all provinces allow international students to join these public plans. But even then, there are gaps in coverage that need to be considered.

Provincial/territorial overview

British Columbia, which hosts 22 per cent of Canada’s international students, allows you to join the same provincial Medical Services Plan that is available to all permanent residents, but it charges monthly fees to international students ($75 as of January 2020) and there is a three-month post-application waiting period before benefits are available. Private insurance plans for students are available to cover the waiting period.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories all allow access to their public health care plans, but don’t count on arriving in a province and automatically becoming eligible for health care coverage. There are application processes, and you may have a waiting period. Normally, your school of choice will explain this to you, but you still need to be proactive and make sure you have coverage from the day you arrive—even if you need to buy short-term insurance, such as Visitors to Canada coverage, to tide you over. 

Colleges and universities in Ontario (which hosts 46 per cent of Canada’s international students), Manitoba, and Nova Scotia provide or require international students to enroll in health insurance plans designed for their purposes. Generally, these plans are similar to the comprehensive coverage available to permanent residents of the province. They also offer supplemental plans that provide benefits not available in the basic provincial services.

Prince Edward Island and Yukon require students to obtain their own health insurance from the private marketplace and all must be done before your arrival in the province or territory.

The Northwest Territories Aurora College (the only post-secondary institution in the territory) has very limited access for international students, but arrangements for health care coverage are best discussed directly with administration. Dress warmly.

Quebec requires most international students to obtain their own private insurance, except for residents of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Norway, Romania, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Sweden, who are covered under the provincial health plan per reciprocal social security agreements with governments of those countries.   

Qs and some As

Because rules and requirements differ from province to province, we have drafted just a few key questions you should ask (and that insurance brokers should be able to answer) in selecting the most appropriate and cost-effective supplementary health insurance coverage for your stay in Canada.

The answers to most of these questions will depend on the type of plan you choose.

What will your enrollment in any health plan cost?
Some colleges prefer to wrap these costs in with tuition and fees. Unwrap them. You don’t want to be surprised by an extra $1,000 or $2,000 charge you weren’t expecting.
Will you be covered from the moment you leave home for any medical emergency, loss, or damage to your belongings while travelling or waiting for benefit eligibility?
Will there be any monetary limitations on your health care coverage? Will you have coverage for special prescription medications for chronic conditions?
Will you be covered for unexpected COVID-type situations, or harm resulting from emergencies like earthquakes, civil disturbances, or riots at concerts?
You want to learn how to ski? Will you be covered for skiing accidents… or mountain climbing, or scuba diving, or parasailing?
Will family members travelling with you be fully covered—from the moment you leave home?
Visitors to Canada plans used as temporary measures to provide coverage for designated waiting periods usually impose at least a 48-hour waiting period before benefits are effective if the policy is purchased after arrival in Canada. If purchased before travel begins, they provide coverage upon departure… much safer.
While in Canada, will you be covered for occasional weekend trips to the United States or some other country during vacation periods?
If you’re enrolled in a public provincial plan, you are not fully covered for any trips out of the country. Most Canadian residents routinely buy stand-alone travel insurance for any trip out of the country, no matter how short. Hospital costs in the US can run into thousands of dollars per day for routine hospital confinement, and even more for emergency care.
Will you be covered for travel to other parts of Canada? Mostly yes, but there may be gaps. Ask, ask, ask.

And that is just a starter. Proper health care coverage is a major issue for any international student in Canada. Do your homework early.

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