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Couple pushes for student visa health coverage

When Chris and Olivia Cox decided to move to Whitehorse together last October, the newlyweds got an unwelcome surprise: Olivia isn't eligible for Yukon medicare.

When Chris and Olivia Cox decided to move to Whitehorse together last October, the newlyweds got an unwelcome surprise: Olivia isn’t eligible for Yukon medicare.

That’s because she is an American citizen, in Canada on a student visa, and the Yukon is one of the only jurisdictions in Canada that doesn’t extend health care to foreign students.

“It was a surprise. It was something we had really counted on. We started looking into other jurisdictions, and they all cover it but the Yukon doesn’t,” Olivia said.

Olivia is a linguistics student working on her dissertation through the University of Alberta, which recruited her from the States a few years ago. She met Chris in Alberta, and the two got married in July 2012.

In Alberta, Olivia’s health care was covered by the province, but she and Chris had no idea they wouldn’t be covered in the Yukon until they applied here and were rejected.

Not only does the territory not cover Olivia, her new husband’s employer’s health plan won’t cover her either, unless she already has basic health coverage.

That means paying $200 a month for basic overage through Great West Life, on top of the international tuition she’s already paying - three times higher than Canadian tuition.

“That basically means I can go to the hospital. If I got in a car crash, they could take me to the hospital,” but that’s about it,” Olivia said.

“We wouldn’t have chosen to come here knowing this. It’s a major disincentive,” Chris said.

When the couple discovered the issue, they brought it to the territorial health minister’s office. They said they were told that changing the rules wouldn’t require re-jigging the entire act, just some political will from the minister’s office - political will which apparently doesn’t exist right now.

“From what I understand, it’s really just a matter of the minister making the decision to allow it,” Chris said.

That may be true, but according to Health Minister Doug Graham, even if the rules were changed, Olivia wouldn’t be covered because she’s not registered at Yukon College.

“If you’re attending university at the University of Alberta, you go to Edmonton and you’re covered by Alberta medicare. If you got a visa to go to Yukon College, you wouldn’t be covered by Alberta medicare,” he said.

However, Graham conceded that even if she were a Yukon College student, she still wouldn’t be covered.

“One of the reasons is because of the small population. Any increase in the number of people on medicare costs us proportionately a huge amount of money compared to say a province like Ontario or Alberta,” Graham explained.

The other reason, he said, is that the issue simply hasn’t ever come up before.

Prior to his stint as an MLA, Graham was the registrar at Yukon College for 25 years. During that time he never once had anyone complain about the health coverage issue, he said.

The NDP’s health critic, Jan Stick, brought a motion in the legislature late last month urging the government to extent health coverage to international students.

Speaking with the News, Graham said he would consider changing the rules to allow for coverage of international students, but only in consultation with the college.

“I don’t know if it’s an impediment to attracting students. I don’t know if things have changed, but in all the years I was there this never came up,” he said.

According to the college, this past fall there were 16 international students registered in credit programs at the college, plus a few more who come for shorter one- or two-month stays to learn English or other skills.

Jacqueline Bedard, the director of college relations, said she also has never heard of international students complaining about the medicare restrictions. She said Yukon College international students are able to get private insurance for substantially less than what the Cox’s are paying.

“It’s not an inexpensive proposition to be an international student, period,” Bedard said.

“When you look at the cost of health care for an international student, we’re looking at perhaps $1.80 a day depending on what private supplier they choose to get their health coverage through. Really, in the greater scheme of things, it’s not a lot of money for an international student,” she said.

But the Coxes are paying almost four times as much as that for their private insurance, which is the cheapest they could find.

“We keep hearing that there is such a need for people with expertise like this to be here and working with the communities,” Chris said.

“It seems really strange that someone like Olivia wouldn’t be welcome, at least not in this way,” Chris said.

Contact Jesse Winter at