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Settling in Canada: Navigating Canada’s Healthcare System While You Wait for Your Health Card

By Nancy Ripton

Published October 1, 2021 • 5 Min Read

You’ve applied for your public health card, but what do you do if a health issue arises in the meantime? Most provinces require three months of residency before healthcare coverage becomes active. While most individuals will still be covered in the case of extreme medical emergencies, a visit to the emergency room or walk-in clinic could cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Here’s how to handle the gap period between applying for a public health card and seeing your coverage actually take effect.

Consider gap insurance while you wait

“The ministry encourages the purchase of private health insurance for new immigrants who must serve a waiting period,” says David Jensen, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health. “This insurance will cover you for any urgent health issues that may arise before your provincial coverage takes effect.”

If you’re moving with a company, the first step is to find out if they provide coverage for you. When Heidi Nymann-Jensen moved to Canada from Denmark, her husband’s company provided insurance that covered any potential health situations from the moment her family landed in Canada. “We were fortunate,” says Nymann-Jensen. The added coverage from Martin’s company removed any fiscally related healthcare worries. “We simply had to fill out the forms at a Service Ontario office, and wait for our cards, knowing we were covered in the interim,” says Nymann-Jensen.

For those who aren’t fortunate enough to have company insurance when coming to Canada, personal insurance is one option. “It can be very costly not to have coverage during those first few months,” says Brigitte Kent, Acting Executive Director of OmbudService for Life and Health Insurance (OLHI), an independent insurance complaint service provider. Ideally, you should apply for insurance prior to moving, she says, but if you wait until after arriving in Canada, make finding private insurance a priority in your first few days. If you don’t apply within the first five days of arrival, private insurance may be more difficult to obtain. Some insurance companies may suspect that you have a medical issue and are seeking insurance only to avoid the imminent fees.

If you’re uncertain of where to look for insurance, OLHI works with 99 per cent of Canada’s health insurance companies. They have an insurance finder that lists all member companies. Simply scroll to “expatriates” for a list of companies that provide interim insurance.

Get free health advice by phone

Every province and territory offers free, confidential services anyone can call and receive free health advice or information. Registered nurses operate the phone lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For most provinces and territories, you dial 811 to be connected with a healthcare professional; Manitoba has Health Links, and in Ontario, this system is known as TeleHealth.

The purpose of these health lines is not to diagnose illness, and the answering attendant cannot give out prescriptions. What they can do is help you decide if you can handle the problem yourself. For almost half of all calls, nurses are able to provide advice that allows the callers to handle the medical situation at home.

However, in the other half of cases, the persons calling will still be required to seek medical advice from a doctor or to visit an emergency room.

If you need to see a doctor from home, Maple is one telemedicine platform in Canada that can get you direct access to doctors via text message, phone or video chat — no appointment needed.

Newcomer clients who start banking with RBC by October 30th can get access to one free online visit with a doctor through Maple for a limited time. Learn More. Conditions apply.

Visit Free Clinics

If you find yourself in need of care, without insurance, and a health line suggests seeing a doctor, you can seek out community health centres (CHC) located across the country. “Ontario has some Community Care Health Centres that provide a variety of health services, often for clients who do not have private insurance or OHIP coverage,” says Jensen.

The names may vary from province to province, but every CHC strives to offer free health services most needed by their community members via a team of qualified health professionals. While most CHCs accept provincial insurance, they are also an option for those who need it and are waiting for provincial coverage.

For those new to Canada, while there may be a three-month wait for residency before coverage becomes active, there are still healthcare options available during this period. If the need arises, seek out programs that are already in place, like free clinics, free health information lines, or plan ahead with gap insurance.

Canada’s universal healthcare is a matter of pride for Canadians. When your Canadian coverage starts, you can cross ‘get health card’ off of your settlement to-do list. In the meantime, see what RBC can offer Newcomers to Canada or learn more about Maple.

Please visit the RBC Newcomers Hub for more useful advice on easing the transition of moving to Canada.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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