Manitoba newcomer and refugee settlement workers are frustrated that the province continues to require proof of residency documentation before issuing Manitoba Health cards. The policy, introduced by the Progressive Conservative government in 2019, requires documents like a signed long-term rent agreement or a notarized letter from a landlord be produced to receive a health card—documents that newly arrived people in temporary housing often do not have.
Erika Frey Morote, director of community development at West Central Women's Resource Centre (WCWRC), told STREETS the policy is a "very big barrier" causing some newly arrived families to be reluctant to seek medical care. It also causes immunization and school enrollment delays for children, she says.
"We've seen women and children being affected in terms of children didn't get immunizations on time (which) can create more significant challenges later on for the health care system," said Frey Morote, who oversees settlement programs fornewcomers and refugees at WCWRC.
Schools are at greater risk of contagious disease outbreaks when immunizations are delayed, Frey Morote said, and when people are reluctant to see a doctor their health conditions can compound and place more burden on the system.
"If we think about it from a conservative perspective, it will most definitely save the government funds later on in terms of usage of the health care system."
Frey Morote said the province has demonstrated, through its reception centres providing services to Ukrainian refugees fleeing war, that it is able to issue health cards without proof of residency. Calling it a "positive response," she said she would like to see similar reception centres made available to all refugees.
"Everybody has a right to protection and a right to restart their lives and be safe," said Frey Morote.
Seid Oumer Ahmed, director of (re)settlement and integration supports at the Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations, said he has spoken to media about Manitoba's health card policy in the past, "and unfortunately there is nothing new I can add."
In 2019 Ahmed told CBC that the new policy was making people reluctant to go to hospitals or to walk-in clinics for fear of being saddled with a medical bill.
In an email to STREETS, Ahmed said "it is not clear for me why they changed the rules in 2019 and why they are suddenly now able to loosen the rules for certain demography. The current practice must be extended for all newcomers or anyone who are applying to obtain a health card."
A 2019 CBC report says the province blamed changes made bythe federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada department for the Manitoba policy change.
Manitoba NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara raised the issue in the legislative assembly this past May, directing a question to Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon.
"Delays can mean worse health outcomes for these Manitobans, Madam Speaker. Will the minister revisit these changes and ensure all newcomers get prompt access to a Manitoba Health card?"
In response, Gordon said ensuring newcomers and refugees have access to health care is a priority for the government, and she pledged to look into the matter and provide an update.
"We want to ensure that any challenges or barriers to settlement in this province is removed. We will take that issue back to the department and provide an update to the member," said Gordon.
STREETS emailed several questions to the province and Health Minister Gordon's office, including why the government is able to provide health cards to Ukrainian refugees but not other refugees without proof of residency, as well as what solutions the health minister is considering. A response from the province did not answer those specific questions, and the minister's office did not respond by press time.
In an email, a spokesperson for the province said, "the Department of Health regularly assess and considers its internal process, looking for improvements to reduce the time to process new applications." The spokesperson also said a health card is not required for school enrolment.
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg School Division (WSD) said children can be enrolled, but may not attend school without a Manitoba Health card or secondary medical insurance. The spokesperson also said school administrators will help families get health cards for children.
A written response from WSD said a "Manitoba Health card is not used as an official document for registration, but it is required if there is a medical incident at school."
Sean Ledwich, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Leaf