Manitoba wants to attract the best and the brightest, but is prepared to send big medical bills to international students struggling financially who get sick and fall through the cracks, critics say.
A GoFundMe campaign of behalf of Calvin Lugalambi raised $56,567 — less than half the $120,000 he owes Shared Health after a trip to the ER for a stomach issue ended in surgery and later catching COVID-19.
However, the civil engineering student from Uganda considers himself lucky.
Tevin Obiga of Kenya spent nearly two months in intensive care at St. Boniface Hospital after contracting a blastomycosis infectionin his lungs. He died March 3. His family was then billed more than $550,000 by Manitoba’s health-care system.
Critics say the province needs to reinstate health coverage for international students that was scrapped in 2018.
The province says international students are required to obtain medical coverage when they register for school in Manitoba.
Lugalambi said the problem occurs if there is a gap. In his case, he was between preparatory courses and starting university in Winnipeg when his medical coverage lapsed. Others may be struggling far from home and can’t make ends meet.
“All of a sudden, people are facing some challenges that they themselves cannot navigate,” Lugalambi said Tuesday. “So some of them have to opt out of school and, if you opt out of school, you don’t have medical coverage — even if you’re working to to make ends meet.”
When such people most need help, they’re scared to seek it because they’re not insured, he said.
“So they they avoid going to the doctor’s just because they know they’re going to get put in a hospital bed. It’s going to charge them so-many-thousand dollars. It’s really appalling and very sad.”
On Tuesday, the Manitoba Liberals called on the Progressive Conservative government to reinstate health insurance for students from abroad.
The Liberals said the program cost more than $3 million a year — however, it saved money in the long run, with students knowing they’re covered and seeking health care rather than putting it off for fear of incurring a huge medical bill while an untreated illness gets worse.
Asked if the province would consider reinstating health insurance for international students, Immigration Minister Jon Reyes balked.
“I refuse to answer that question,” he said in a scrum with reporters.
When pressed, Reyes said students are required to purchase health-care coverage when they register at post-secondary institutions. “We not going to meddle with that. We’re not in the insurance business.”
An argument for reinstatement: it’s a good investment in skilled workers more inclined to stay in Manitoba once they’re established, said Uche Nwanko, co-ordinator of AfriCans of Winnipeg South.
“Early diagnosis, early treatment can save a lot,” said the agricultural economist from Nigeria, who tried to advocate for Obiga and Lugalambi — and is currently trying to help another international student in Victoria Hospital facing a huge bill.
“What the government seems not to appreciate is that international students contribute a lot to our economy,” said Nwanko. “They pay exorbitant school fees compared to domestic students. They bring money and they bring diversity and when they finish, they become part of our economy.
“Tevin Obiga was a computer engineering student. If Tevin was alive and finished his studies, he could’ve contributed millions to this economy.”
Nwanko said the bills presented to Obiga’s family — $517,764 from St. Boniface Hospital , $1,405.55 from Victoria, $28,254 from Grace Hospital and $2,872.52 for doctor’s appointments and treatment — is “ridiculous.”
The young man’s single mother needs help raising the $20,000 to repatriate his remains to Kenya. The advocate helped her obtain a visa so she could get to Winnipeg to be at her son’s bedside before he died.
Brett Carter, who helped raise money for Lugalambi’s medical expenses, said he can’t understand why the province cut a vital program that’s resulting in so much misery.
“Health coverage is the least we could do to help international students contribute to our province and country in a meaningful way,” Carter said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
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