What International Students need to know about health insurance

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By Consuelo Solar


Some years ago I came to Toronto for graduate school, and I got my first financial surprise when the program coordinator told me that on top of tuition and housing, I had to pay for mandatory health insurance – all because I was an international student. I asked her why should I pay in advance for a service that I may never use? Why not just pay if I got sick? How expensive could it be? The program coordinator immediately answered “Very expensive; maybe more than a hundred for a doctor visit or even thousands of dollars for a hospital stay.”

As at all universities and most colleges across Canada, mine has strict regulations in this regard, and demands that their international students maintain health insurance for the duration of their stay. I thought this made sense, considering that I could have ended up spending my scholarship money on an accident or a series of bad colds, but I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t choose any health insurance. I went to the International Student Office, where I was told that international students health plans must meet provincial government’s standards to guarantee that the services they receive are equivalent to those received by their Canadian classmates.

Most Ontario universities and colleges participate in the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP), created in 1994 to provide international students completing an undergraduate, graduate or post graduate degree on a full-time basis, with coverage comparable to that of Ontario Health Insurance (OHIP), which is free for Ontario residents. UHIP will pay for your stay and services at eligible hospitals, doctor visits, osteopath and podiatrist visits, ambulance, diagnostic, laboratory and x-ray, among other services received by Ontario residents under OHIP. What you pay at the beginning of your academic term is called the premium, and it is based on your student status, the length of your coverage and the length of your dependents’ coverage.

The coverage is continuous for the duration of your program of study, and there are no gaps when you are registered and active within the fall or winter of an academic year. It begins twenty days before the start of your program, and even if you enroll late, you must pay your premium retroactive to the first of the month in which your academic term begins.

I came to Canada with my common-law partner, so I wanted to know if I could protect him as well. Soon I learned that not only I could but I was obliged to do it and I would have to pay a late fee of 500 dollars if I didn’t do it on time. You should enroll your dependents within 30 days of their arrival into Canada or within 30 days of the expiration of their previous UHIP coverage.

If you are late, you will have to pay the fee, plus premium retroactive to the fi rst of the month in which your academic term began. This applies to legal, common-law or same-sex spouses, children under the age of 22 (if not a full-time student), and disabled children who are accompanying UHIP members in Canada.

Once I got my card or “proof of coverage,” I went to the UHIP website (www.uhip.ca) to learn about my benefits, and I found out that there are some services not covered, including cosmetic surgery, medical examinations and tests required for immigration purposes, vision care, prescriptions, dental care; pretty much the same services not provided by OHIP. So I wondered what to do if I need vision or dental care or prescriptions, which seemed basic to me. Simple, obtain additional insurance. This is usually recommended by your school, but it is not mandatory. Supplemental student plans are often offered by student associations or federations, and the best place to obtain guidance in this matter is the school’s international student office or the human resource office.

When the holidays came, I wanted to travel out of the province, and later out of the country. I did my research and I was happy to discover that if I needed medical assistance while outside Ontario, I would have to pay for any services I required, but I would get a refund just by sending the receipts with a claim form to the UHIP insurer, Sun Life. However, the picture was quite different when traveling outside Canada. In that case, UHIP would pay only for necessary emergency expenses, the same as OHIP, so I had to purchase additional health insurance for full coverage.

After a year in graduate school I applied for Permanent Residency – and as soon as you apply you are granted a “domestic student” status. I asked my program coordinator if I could get some kind of discount on my health insurance premium, now that I was paying less for tuition, but she told me that I needed to maintain my UHIP coverage until I was actually granted the Permanent Resident status. About a year later I became a permanent resident, and I learned that, because I had already paid for an entire year of private insurance, I could get a refund. I called my university’s UHIP representative to ask for it, but I was told that I was in the OHIP waiting period so I still needed to maintain my UHIP coverage. So for three months, after having applied to OHIP, my coverage remained the same as for international students. Just when I started to think that I would have to pay for a whole year of insurance, my OHIP coverage became effective, and I qualified for a refund. After submitting a completed refund application, the money corresponding to the remaining portion of the year was credited to my student account.

If you are an international student about to graduate and you are planning to stay in Canada after graduation, you should know that it is possible to extend UHIP coverage for a maximum of 60 days, and the application must be submitted before the original coverage ends. If you are a participant in CIC’s Post-Graduation Work Permit Program you may be eligible for Ontario health insurance coverage provided you are employed full-time in Ontario for a minimum of six months; you have a valid work permit during this time; you maintain your primary place of residence in Ontario; you are physically present in Ontario for at least 153 days in any 12-month period; and you are physically present in Ontario for 153 of the first 183 days immediately after establishing residency in the province. (For questions about eligibility for OHIP coverage, call 1-800-268-1154)

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