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International students call on Manitoba government to bring back universal health care

Dozens of international students and their supporters rallied at the Manitoba legislature on Monday, calling for the province to reinstate their access to public health care.

In 2018, the province cut universal health care for international post-secondary students to save an estimated $3.1 million. Four years later, some say their out-of-pocket medical costs are prohibitive and unjust.

On Monday, students chanted “What do we want? Health care for all! When do we want it? Now!” Fourth-year computer science student Kunal Rajpal was among them.

The student from New Dehli says since he became a student in 2019, he’s had to cover medical costs that are prohibitive.

“I had to pay a lot of money from my own pocket, which seems a bit unfair and everyone else is just able to go and get health care for free,” he said.

Kunal Rajpal (left) says it’s difficult for international students to move to a new country to study, pay hefty fees and also navigate a challenging private health-care system. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Rajpal says international students face barriers coming to school in Manitoba because of the culture shock, being away from family and their classes.

“On top of that, I also have to understand how health coverage works. It just becomes really difficult,” he said.

At the U of M, international students pay $1,032 for a full year of coverage through the Manitoba International Student Health Plan, which gets them the same general level of health care as Manitoba residents, the university website says. The plan has coverage limits for international students.

In contrast, non-international students pay $345 for extended coverage, including some mental health coverage, vision care and dental care.

Judith Oviosun, the campaign co-ordinator for the Canadian Federations for Students of Manitoba and a spokesperson for the Healthcare for All Coalition, says there are many misconceptions about international students, including that they are taking advantage of the province.

“We know that is not true because international students not only pay taxes, they contribute to the culture, social and finances of our province and our community,” she said at the rally outside the legislature.

Oviosun says the province is, in fact, taking advantage of international students.

People sign a petition calling on the Manitoba government to reinstate universal health care for international students at a rally on Monday. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The Nigerian woman graduated from the University of Manitoba in 2021. She had access to publicly-funded health care as a student prior to the change to the Health Services Insurance Act in 2018, and then became involved with the Healthcare for All Coalition.

“Our organization was created out of a need to protect vulnerable and minority community members from a policy that is excluding them from accessing publicly-funded health care here in Manitoba,” she said.

“Health care should be reinstated for everyone, regardless of their immigration status.”

NDP and PCs spar in question period

St. Vital MLA Jamie Moses brought up the question of universal health care for international students in question period on Monday, calling on Advanced Education Minister Jon Reyes to reinstate it.

“Perhaps the minister’s forgotten, but international students already pay so much more for tuition, and him forcing them to pay even more for private health coverage increases their financial hardships,” Moses said.

“We know that there are students who fall through the cracks and are left with bills of tens of thousands of dollars. It’s simply wrong.”

Reyes accused Moses of “fearmongering,” and said the international students he’s spoken to know that they have health-care coverage through their tuition fees, and therefore don’t have to pay the full costs of their procedures.

“Our government continues to invest more than $1 billion in post-secondary on a yearly basis to make sure we provide world class post-secondary education in Manitoba for our students, including international students,” Reyes said.

A spokesperson from the province added in an email that educational institutions work with the province to provide comprehensive health coverage for international students.

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