Are thousands of uninsured people about to lose health coverage in Ontario? Fears grow about end to COVID-era OHIP rules

From the Toronto Star article

Even with her teenage brother in extreme pain, his knee swollen from a bad fall and looking like a melon, Luna Garcia’s family hesitated to take him to hospital.

Instead, they waited a day to see a doctor, acting only when the suffering became excruciating for the 15-year-old — all because the undocumented Toronto family feared hospital staff would ask for their immigration status and demand fees upfront that the family couldn’t afford.

But thanks to the Ontario government’s temporary measure to extend health care to uninsured residents during the pandemic, there was none of that. Garcia’s brother got the medical attention he needed and avoided lasting damage to his knee.

Health-care providers say that during the pandemic they saw first-hand the improvement in the care of the uninsured. They now hope the “milestone changes” will stay.

“As a front-line provider, I have seen many patients access urgent health-care services, life-saving treatments at times, that they would otherwise either have been denied or felt afraid seeking,” said Dr. Ritika Goel, a Toronto family physician.

“We have seen the benefits of these changes and we want for them to be made permanent.”

However, as many pandemic-driven health policies have been either relaxed or scrapped, advocates in Ontario fear that the province’s interim health coverage for the uninsured will be next on the chopping block.

Prior to the start of the pandemic in Canada in March 2020, advocates say about half a million children and adults in Ontario were without public health insurance at any given time. They included new immigrants, returning Canadian citizens caught up in the three-month waiting period, temporary foreign workers between contracts, international students and non-status residents.

To reduce barriers to access health care during the pandemic, the province has not only relaxed eligibility to include the uninsured, but also removed the three-month waiting period for OHIP coverage.

Goel is part of a coalition of front-line health professionals and community groups that has launched a petition to urge the province to make the existing directives a permanent program to ensure universal access to health care services for all Ontario residents. They have planned a rally at Queen’s Park next Wednesday.

“Many things during COVID have been unpredictable. What we know is that the pandemic has unearthed so many inequities, including that between people who have health insurance and those who do not. We worry that many of the social benefits that have come through in this time are being rolled back,” said Goel.

“But it’s in the interest of the government and the people of Ontario, health-care providers and the health-care system to ensure access for all people living in Ontario.” (Campaign organizers say Quebec and British Columbia also made health care more available to the uninsured during the pandemic, to lesser extents.)

Toronto pediatrician Dr. Shazeen Suleman said that before the pandemic, she would see uninsured children coming into her office only when they were “acutely unwell”; sometimes she would have to refer them to emergency.

She said that conditions such as asthma and even chronic illnesses like diabetes benefit from community physicians monitoring patients’ conditions so they don’t have to show up in hospital only when they are in crisis.

“We’re still in COVID and to turn back the clock at this point is going to have disastrous outcomes. We hear every day about how our system is at its breaking point and to then add another extra burden of having individuals come in at death’s door will be disastrous,” said Suleman.

The interim policy has also simplified the administrative work for health-care providers and alleviated their stress and burnout, Suleman noted, saying that in the past “I might have been one who was trying to rack my brains (about) how to get care for someone who didn’t have insurance. Now it’s opened up.”

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