B.C. to subsidize health care for international students

British Columbia is poised to fully subsidize health care for international students at a potential cost of more than $100 million annually.

B.C. will become one of just three provinces and territories in Canada to extend, free of charge, public health care insurance coverage to international students residing here for less than one year, once it fully eliminates Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums on Jan. 1, 2020.

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Most international students across Canada do not receive public health care. In B.C., in addition to the loss of an estimated $100-plus million in premiums from international students, taxpayers will continue paying hundreds of millions of dollars to cover overall health care costs of the students.

It's a cost some say is worth it, to draw international students from a competitive global market. Meanwhile, others question the full subsidy, given Canada's already competitive position.

Presently, international students in B.C. are legally required to pay MSP premiums under the Medicare Protection Act, if they are living and studying here for more than six months.

While the number of international students continues to grow, and B.C. aims to eliminate all premiums, "there are currently no plans to change the eligibility requirements for the MSP program as outlined by the Medicare Protection Act," said Ministry of Health spokesperson Laura Heinze.

International students now pay $37.50 per month after the BC Liberal government announced in 2017 it was cutting the premium in half, in hopes of eliminating it.

Although there was no apparent consideration from the BC Liberals to consider international students when fees were slashed in half, current finance critic and Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond says the NDP government ought to ensure international students pay into the system.

"From my perspective, I think [British Columbians] would expect international students to pay for their costs," said Bond.

A contentious Employer's Health Tax (EHT) on medium-sized to large businesses will help offset the elimination of the personal and family premiums, according to the BC NDP.

Bond said the free pass to international students is an example of the poor rollout of the EHT.

B.C. Finance Minister Carole James declined an interview request from Glacier Media.

Only two other jurisdictions - Saskatchewan and New Brunswick unconditionally enrol international students in public health care. Meanwhile, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Nunavut provide health care for students in or beyond their second year of studies. These six jurisdictions represent only 11.3 per cent of the study permits currently issued in Canada.

Conversely, Ontario, Quebec (with exceptions for some countries of origin), Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Yukon and Northwest Territories - comprising 65 % of international students with study permits - do not extend public health care insurance to international students.

It was just last month that Manitoba eliminated health care eligibility for international students. Prior to the change, Manitoba extended coverage to stays of six months or longer, as is planned in B.C, where 23.7 per cent of all study permit holders are located.

The Ministry of Health has no records on how many international students are enrolled in MSP, said Heinze.

There are currently 142,390 international students with study permits in B.C., according to Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Study permits are not required by IRCC for any students studying in Canada for less than six months, which is the threshold for enrolling in MSP.

That said, not all of students with study permits may stay for six months. For example, in 2016 Global Affairs Canada reported 408,000 "long-term" international students (those staying over six months) were in Canada, but IRCC data showed 516,485 permit holders, meaning 21 % of study permit holders were not counted as long-term students.

So if B.C. has an estimated 112,482 long-term international students, it will cost the provincial government an estimated $101.2 million in revenue by including international students in the elimination of its $75 MSP premiums - which amounted to $2.5 billion in 2016-2017, prior to the 50 per cent reduction.

The actual cost could be higher, given that many international students bring dependents, who are also eligible for MSP.

"I think it's a reasonable assumption when international students come here, there needs to be recognition if they use those services they need to carry some of those costs," said Bond.

Aran Armutlu, chairperson of the BC Federation of Students (BCFS), however, challenges this assumption.

Armutlu says international students should be afforded the same access to social services as domestic ones - after all they pay roughly four times more in tuition fees, to cover the cost of education. In the 2016-17 B.C. academic year, the average annual post-secondary undergraduate tuition fees for domestic students were $5,534 whereas international students paid $21,486, according to Statistics Canada.

"International students are part of our community and campuses. We expect them to be treated fairly just like domestic students and have access to all that they need," he said.

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