University to require proof of insurance for foreign students

Health care coverage

Thompson Rivers University will require new international students to provide proof of short-term medical insurance following a Daily News inquiry into the way students are provided coverage.

The university provided numbers Tuesday acknowledging it cannot determine if all its international students who enrolled in September are covered by private "bridge" insurance for three months. After that time, they qualify for medical service plan (MSP) coverage.

Officials stressed that they strive to ensure students are covered and believe the vast majority have insurance or are covered by MSP. That's done through orientation meetings and via regular meetings with international student advisors.

In response to a request, TRU said of 482 new international students who enrolled in September, it found 286 were covered through bridge insurance while another 138 had pre-existing coverage.

"Fifty-eight of them (12 per cent), we don't know," said TRU spokesman Christopher Seguin. "It doesn't mean they aren't covered. They didn't get back to usâ. They could be covered. We don't know."

Following The Daily News' inquiries, the university stated it will now require proof of insurance for new international students - something it has been considering for some time.

But officials also acknowledge TRU has no way of ensuring students, international or domestic, enroll in MSP.

Students may opt to forgo paying premiums until they require medical care.

"We can't dictate to students," said Seguin. "MSP can be paid backdated."

Adrian Conradi, associate director of TRU World, said the university meets occasionally with MSP representatives.

"Our system is pretty generous. If you don't keep up, you'll get a retroactive bill."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health said if an international student living here for more than three months needs medical care and is not enrolled in MSP, they are on the hook initially. But they may apply through Health Insurance B.C., which administers MSP, to be backdated to when they were eligible to enroll and retroactively pay premiums.

They are then issued a care card and can have the billing revoked and redirected to MSP.

"When you qualify, enroll in MSP and pay your premiums," urged spokesman Ryan Jabs, adding any appeal requires documentation and a meeting with officials from Health Insurance B.C.

There may also be additional charges to international patients from hospitals in some cases.

If students aren't covered during the three-month waiting period to enrol in MSP, health costs can be dramatic.

Chuntian Ji, a computer science student at TRU, said he's always been covered while attending the university for five years. But a girlfriend who came here from China on a visitor's visa was bitten by a dog before the MSP waiting period lapsed.

When the dog's owner, who originally said he would cover the entire hospital visit, reneged, "We had to pay $700 or $800," he said.

Ji said he believes the majority of students pay MSP because premiums are relatively low compared to the risks.

In another case, an American athlete on the TRU baseball team was seriously injured, requiring a lengthy hospital stay, and there were questions about his coverage. Conradi said TRU World staff worked with Health Insurance B.C. and the athlete was eventually provided coverage.

Interior Health Authority provided statistics to The Daily News showing it wrote off $1.35 million worth of unpaid debts from out-of-country patients in its last budget year. Those would include both tourists and students, for example.

IHA does not refuse to provide coverage based on ability to pay. It has a staff of 32 that do accounts receivable, everything from residential home care bills to bills accrued by patients who are not covered.

Bills not paid after 60 days or so are sent to a collection agency.

International visitors are billed at higher rates to recognize tax contributions of Canadian residents.

Nathan Lane, executive director of TRU Student Union, said the university has refused offers in past to cover international students through an extended plan offered by the student union that is mandatory for all domestic students.

For $248 a year, the plan offers drug and dental coverage.

"It's hard for us to tell a student at the front counter facing a $1,000 dental bill when his tooth was knocked out, 'Sorry, there's nothing we can do.'"

Lane said the university told the student union the cost makes it uncompetitive.

"They say 'It adds a $248 cost to our marketing."

Residents, permanent or visitor, may officially opt out of MSP coverage and premiums by signing papers. But university officials said they strenuously advise against it for their international students because students are then clearly on the hook for all their bills.

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