Health-care coverage runs out for Alberta workers awaiting permit renewals, permanent residency


In 2020, Alberta Health extended health-care coverage to people waiting for the federal government to renew their work permits. Many of those extensions have now run out, leaving foreign nationals responsible for paying for their own health care.

Originally from England, Charlie Wing, left, has applied to become a permanent resident in Canada. Her wife, Amy, is her sponsor. (Submitted by Charlie Wing)

Charlie Wing has been waiting more than a year for her permanent residency application to be approved. 

Originally from Gloucester, England, she came to Canada on a two-year work permit in January 2019 and married her Canadian partner in August last year.

Because she applied to extend her work permit before it expired, Wing has what is called “maintained status,” meaning she can keep living and working in Edmonton until the federal government processes her applications for permanent residence and a temporary work visa.

Wing works in disability support services — a sector with a worker shortage — and pays taxes on her earnings, but because her work permit expired, she no longer qualifies for provincial health-care coverage.

In April 2020, Alberta Health approved a temporary coverage extension to residents waiting on the federal government to renew their work permits.

But for Wing and many other foreign nationals, those extensions have now run out, leaving them responsible for health-care costs.

Since Wing’s six-month coverage extension ended last July, Alberta Health Services (AHS) has billed her for more than $7,000 for emergency room visits and an appendix surgery.

“It’s completely unmanageable,” Wing told CBC News on Monday.

Living with borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, she worries that a major depressive episode, which has sent her to hospital before, could do so again, racking up even more fees.

She has stopped seeing a psychiatrist, since those appointments are no longer covered, and her requests to AHS to waive or postpone fees have been denied.

“There’s nothing we can do,” she said.

Pandemic delays

Saiyed Jaffer, a licensed immigration consultant in Edmonton, said many people have lost health-care coverage as they wait for their applications to be processed by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Processing times have increased to unprecedented levels during the pandemic and wait times are hard to predict, Jaffer said. Some of his clients have received decisions within weeks while others have been waiting for two years.

IRCC communications adviser Jelena Jenko said the pandemic has had a significant impact on Canada’s immigration system, from travel restrictions to employees working remotely. Canada set a new record by welcoming more than 401,000 permanent residents last year.

Jenko said IRCC “has been moving towards a more integrated, modernized and centralized working environment in order to help speed up application processing globally.”

On Monday, the federal government announced steps to improve the process. Its plans include increasing processing capacity, introducing a permanent residence application tracker and digitizing the process for more applications.

Jaffer said one of his clients, a caregiver for an elderly person with high medical needs, has been approved for a work permit but because she has not received it, she can’t renew her health-care coverage and receive her booster vaccine against COVID-19.

An Alberta Health spokesperson said any non-permanent residents who are in Alberta are able to receive the vaccine for free through AHS.

Jaffer said he advises clients to find private health-care coverage in the meantime, but many of them can’t afford it.

“If you factor in some sort of health condition into the mix too, then it can be very much out of reach for a lot of people,” he said.

Travel insurance

Like Wing, Sean Young came to Alberta on a two-year work visa in 2019 and applied for permanent residency last year. 

After months of waiting, he learned in November that his application was missing one form. He had to start the process again.

Sean Young, seen here with his fiancée, Rebecca Smyth, doesn’t qualify for Alberta health-care coverage as he waits for the federal government to process his immigration applications. (Submitted by Sean Young)

Young said that after his health-care coverage ended in September, no private company would give him insurance without an Alberta health-care card. He purchased travel insurance instead.

“I haven’t had to go to any health facilities, but I’m really not going to unless I’m sort of on my deathbed,” said Young, who lives in Calgary.

Six-month extensions

Alberta Health spokesperson Chris Bourdeau said health care is for eligible residents, as defined by the Canada Health Act, but the province will extend health insurance for up to six additional months to allow time for people to receive work permit renewals from IRCC.

People who have applied for permanent residency and a work permit may also receive up to six months extension while awaiting a “first positive decision” letter from the federal government. 

Bourdeau said people still waiting for immigration decisions are responsible for following up with the federal government, typically through the help of their member of Parliament. While they wait, they may return to their home country or buy private health insurance.

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