Snowbirds file challenge against cuts to Ontario government travel insurance

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TORONTO — A group representing Canadians who spend part of the year in sunnier climes has filed a legal challenge against Ontario’s decision to scrap out-of-country health insurance, saying the government’s move goes against the portability pillar of the Canada Health Act.

The Canadian Snowbird Association announced Thursday that it was seeking an injunction to delay the changes that came into effect on New Year’s Day so a court can rule on their legality.

“We are filing this legal challenge on behalf of our members, and all Ontario travellers, in order to protect their right to out-of-country emergency medical care, which is enshrined in the Canada Health Act,” association president Karen Huestis said in a written statement. “These cuts are an egregious violation of the portability requirement of the CHA and must be addressed head-on.”

The program covered out-of-country inpatient services up to $400 per day for higher level of care, and up to $50 per day for emergency outpatient and doctor services.

Health Minister Christine Elliott announced last May that the government would cut the program, saying it was costly and did not provide value to taxpayers. The announcement followed a six-day public consultation.

Elliott’s spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on the case as it is before the courts, but said the program was costly and largely ineffectual, paying out only five cents of every dollar claimed.

“With this limited coverage and low reimbursement rate, OHIP-eligible Ontarians who do not purchase private travel health insurance can be left with catastrophically large bills to pay,” Hayley Chazan said in an email.

Elliott has said the province spends $2.8 million to administer approximately $9 million in claim payments through the program every year.

In a July letter to Elliott, the federal government warned that scrapping the program could cost Ontarians.

“If all publicly financed reimbursement of out-of-country physician and hospital services is eliminated, private health insurance premiums for travellers will inevitably rise for all Ontario residents,” then-health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor wrote. “Even modest increases could pose a hardship for some individuals.”

Provincial NDP health critic France Gelinas, who says the policy change violates the Canada Health Act, wrote to the federal government this fall urging them to take action.

“I work at Queen’s Park, there are more lawyers per square inch than anywhere else, and every single one I’ve talked to all said the same thing: It violates the Canada Health Act,” she said. “It’s one of the five tenets … it needs to be there.”

Gelinas said the change means Ontario is the only province or territory that does not provide some basic health coverage to residents while they are outside Canada, even if it is a small amount.

“There are so many people who will never be able to buy insurance,” she said. “It’s just not feasible or affordable for them. For them, that little wee bit of a guarantee was there and was meaningful.”

—With files by Shawn Jeffords.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press