What you should know if your health card is expiring

Diagrams of different styles of red-and-white Ontario Health Cards taken from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care website. (Image from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care)

There are 400,000 red-and-white Ontario health cards still circulating 25 years after work to phase them out began, and if you own one, you won’t be able to use it for much longer.

While it hasn’t announced a date, The Canadian Press reported on May 9 that the provincial government plans to void the remaining red-and-white health cards once and for all.

The move comes decades after the provincial NDP government first announced its plan in 1994 to phase out the cards and replace them with more secure photo ID cards.

Because they lack photo identification, the older versions of the cards — which Ontarians used to receive publicly funded health care — are vulnerable to fraud and misuse. While the original plan was to eliminate all of the red-and-white cards within three years, governments have been gradually phasing them out ever since.

Whether they’re the owner of a fabled red-and-white card, or just a regular card that is due to expire soon, there are steps Ontarians can take to avoid gaps in their health care when cards expire.

For starters, everyone in Ontario who is eligible to receive OHIP should make sure Service Ontario has a permanent address on file in order to receive renewal notices and other important mail from the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.

“It is the obligation of patients to keep an updated address with the ministry of health and long term care for their OHIP,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition. “Otherwise they can’t communicate with you.”

People who don’t receive renewal notices from the ministry run the risk of having a card expire without realizing it. Some Ontarians, like seniors over the age of 80, can submit their card renewal paperwork via post, so having an address on record with Service Ontario is vitally important.

People under the age of 80 with proof of ID and residency can renew or replace a health card in person at a Service Ontario centre or, in many cases, renew a card online. It’s always best to look online though and know ahead of time which documents are needed to renew or update a card.

Failing to renew or update an expired card could lead to frustrating, stressful and expensive outcomes. In Ontario, under provincial law and the Canada Health Act, medically necessary hospital and physician care are covered under the public health system and are provided without user fees to anyone with a valid OHIP card.

However, physicians are not required to provide medical services without payment to people without valid OHIP cards.

“People will have a rude awakening when they go to a walk in clinic and their card’s expired,” Mehra said. “And they’re told they have to pay, or they can’t get the service until after they’ve updated their card.”

How to serve a patient without a valid health card is up to each health care provider’s discretion. One doctor might choose to treat a regular patient with an expired card free of charge, give the patient a chance to replace the card and then bill OHIP.

Another doctor might charge a patient without a valid card a deposit fee, and then bill OHIP and refund the deposit after the patient has replaced the card. But not everyone is so lucky.

“Some doctors and some hospitals will refuse you if your card is expired,” Mehra said. “So it is important to keep an up-to-date card. That is your obligation.”

Someone experiencing a major medical emergency — like a heart attack, stroke or life-threatening injury — isn’t likely to be denied life-saving intervention. But even those patients could find themselves trying to renew an OHIP card from a hospital bed while in recovery.

And ultimately, a hospital or medical centre can still choose to bill a patient at a later date for services rendered if that patient takes too long to get a valid health card.

“So it really does make sense for people to go update their address,” Mehra said. “And just get their new card at Service Ontario.”