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Snowbirds file challenge against cuts to OHIP travel insurance

Ontario drops out-of-country health coverage
WATCH ABOVE: Ontario has become the first Canadian province to eliminate modest health coverage for travellers outside the country.

TORONTO – A group representing Canadians who spend part of the year in sunnier climes has filed a legal challenge against Ontario’s decision to scrap out-of-country health insurance, saying the government’s move violates the Canada Health Act.

The Canadian Snowbird Association announced Thursday that it was seeking a judicial review of the changes, which came into effect on New Year’s Day.

“These cuts are an egregious violation of the portability requirement of the CHA and must be addressed head-on,” association president Karen Huestis said in a written statement.

READ MORE: Changes to OHIP take effect: What you need to know

The program covered out-of-country inpatient services up to $400 per day for higher level of care, and up to $50 per day for emergency outpatient and doctor services.

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Attention travelers: Changes to OHIP now in effect
Attention travelers: Changes to OHIP now in effect

Health Minister Christine Elliott announced last May that the government would cut the program, saying it was costly and did not provide value to taxpayers. The announcement followed a six-day public consultation.

The snowbird association had previously said it was seeking an injunction, but spokesman Evan Rachovsky said that’s still up in the air as they focus on the upcoming review, which has a court date set for June.

He noted that the organization was founded on the issue of travel health insurance in the early 1990s, when the provinces were making cuts to the program.

“Now the challenge is more pressing, because you’re not talking about a reduction in benefits or a reduction in reimbursement rates, you’re talking about the elimination of the program in its entirety,” Rachovsky said.

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A spokeswoman for Elliott wouldn’t comment on the case as it is before the courts, but noted that the program was largely ineffectual, paying out only five cents of every dollar claimed.

“With this limited coverage and low reimbursement rate, OHIP-eligible Ontarians who do not purchase private travel health insurance can be left with catastrophically large bills to pay,” Hayley Chazan said in an email.

READ MORE: Changes to OHIP coverage is a good reason to look at travel insurance

Elliott has previously said the province spent $2.8 million to administer approximately $9 million in claim payments through the program every year.

In a July letter to Elliott, the federal government warned that scrapping the program could cost Ontarians.

“If all publicly financed reimbursement of out-of-country physician and hospital services is eliminated, private health insurance premiums for travellers will inevitably rise for all Ontario residents,” then-health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor wrote. “Even modest increases could pose a hardship for some individuals.”

Provincial NDP health critic France Gelinas said the change means Ontario is the only province or territory that does not provide some basic health coverage to residents while they are outside Canada, even if it is a small amount.

“There are so many people who will never be able to buy insurance,” she said. “It’s just not feasible or affordable for them. For them, that little wee bit of a guarantee was there and was meaningful.”

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-With files from Shawn Jeffords