$500K bill sparks calls for universal health care for international students

0K bill sparks calls for universal health care for international students

UPDATE: What CBC knows about this case has significantly changed since publication of this story. CBC has learned that Tevin Obiga was not a University of Manitoba student. Here is our latest story.

The Manitoba Liberals are calling on the government to reinstate health insurance for international students after the family of Kenyan man received a medical bill of more than $500,000.

Tevin Obiga, 25, was admitted to a Winnipeg hospital in mid-January and moved to intensive care less than a week later. The fourth-year computer engineering student was diagnosed with blastomycosis, a fungal infection that affects the lungs. He died on March 3, just over a week after his mother flew from Kenya to be at his side.

On Thursday, his family received a medical bill totalling $517, 764 for his stay at St. Boniface Hospital.

“There is no way that this amount of money can be paid — not even a scratch of it,” said Uche Nwankwo, a family friend and leader in the local African community. “We’re talking about $550,000 … If you convert that to Kenyan shillings, I don’t know who will be able to afford that. It’s just ridiculous and unimaginable.”

Not how Manitoba should act: Lamont

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called on the government to immediately reinstate a program which helped international post-secondary students pay for their health insurance and health care, but was disbanded by the Progressive Conservatives in March 2018.

The change to Health Services Insurances Act went into effect in September that same year, and saved the province approximately $3.1 million.

“There’s no reason for it to be cut, and it’s really causing astonishing misery,” Lamont said Monday at the Manitoba Legislature.

“This is not a humane way of doing things. This is not how Manitoba or Canada should act,” he said. 

He asked that Obiga’s medical expenses be waived.

“It’s a pretty low price to pay to make sure that students from abroad who study in Manitoba, who bring hundreds of millions of dollars with them, actually can get health care coverage when they need it.”

Obiga’s family and members of Winnipeg’s African community were trying to raise $20,000 to fly Obiga’s body to Kenya to be buried when his family received the $517,764 medical bill. Most of the charges were incurred during a 43-day stay in intensive care.  

They were also billed $28,254 from the Grace Hospital, $1,405.55 from Victoria Hospital and $2,872.52 for doctor’s appointments and treatment, according to the Liberals. That brings the total of all medical bills upwards of $550,000,  the equivalent of more than 49 million Kenyan shillings.

Tevin Obiga played with the Kenyan soccer team at the African Nations Cup last summer. (Submitted by George Obiga)

Lamont and Liberal health critic Dr. Jon Gerrard (River Heights) met virtually with Obiga’s mother, Lilian Ndiego, and his aunt over the weekend. That meeting was organized by Uche Nwankwo, a leader in the local African community.

Nwankwo has also been in contact with Obiga’s family back in Kenya since the young man’s death.

The family’s still trying to understand and trying to still cope with the situation that is developing every day, he said Monday on Up To Speed. Their primary concern is bringing Obiga back home for his funeral, he said, adding there is no way the family will be able to pay for his medical expenses.

Obiga’s insurance coverage unknown

Nwankwo, who came from Nigeria in 2008 and was an instructor at the University of Winnipeg from 2013 until 2021, isn’t sure what type of health coverage Obiga had, if any.

Nwankwo says he’s been asking questions in hopes of finding out, and he’s hopeful those answers will come out in the coming days.

According to Manitoba Blue Cross, the province’s international student health plan requires all international post-secondary students to have primary health coverage.

This plan will cover international students for eligible medical services that may be difficult to afford outside their home country, such as hospital stays, visits to the doctor, x-rays, and more, according to Manitoba Blue Cross’ website.

“Other provinces and other countries… welcome students from abroad with health coverage because that’s the right, smart and humane thing to do,” Gerrard said in a news release. “The PCs need to step up.”

CBC News asked the province to comment, but the request was redirected to Shared Health. No comment was received as of Monday evening.

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