Health-care costs deter top talent

Queen’s should adopt public health coverage for international students to compete for the best students and faculty

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Health-care insurance costs for international students and faculty may be hurting Ontario universities’ ability to attract top talent from outside the country.

It’s a problem that could have enormous implications for Queen’s 2011 Academic Plan, with Principal Daniel Woolf leveraging an international strategy as part of the solution to financial constraints and increased competition from other Canadian universities.

“I believe that part of the solution for addressing some of these current pressing challenges will be to extend Queen’s global reach,” Woolf said in a 2010 issue of Queen’s Alumni Review.

But the health-care situation for both graduate and undergraduate international students, as well as faculty, is one of the areas where the administration needs to provide greater support.

Currently, international students and staff pay for both basic health care and supplementary health care. Even though they pay taxes for the duration of their residence in Canada, thus contributing to Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) costs, international students haven’t been eligible for OHIP since 1994.

In the wake of deregulation in the 1990s, the Council of Ontario Universities created the private University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP), providing their international students, faculty and staff with a basic level of health-care coverage.

It’s an expensive option for many international students. UHIP costs between $684 and $2,820 per year on top of tuition — which ranges anywhere from $12,000 to $68,000 per year.

Although UHIP was set up to provide equivalent coverage to OHIP, it’s not universally recognized by hospitals and clinics in Ontario. Hospitals that aren’t part of UHIP’s Preferred Provider Network (PPN) can charge up to 2.5 times more than what will be reimbursed. In an emergency, someone in a critical condition may not have time to choose the cheapest option.

The situation for international students is even worse with regards to doctors: according to a December 2010 Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance policy paper, practitioners can charge international students well over the amount covered by UHIP.

Adding to the problem is the fact that UHIP premiums fluctuate wildly. In 2007, for example, single students saw premiums increase by 30 per cent, while faculty members with one dependent faced a 58 per cent jump.

Salaries and funding packages are not adjusted to help mitigate these unanticipated and unavoidable extra costs.

The problem of health-care insurance for international students isn’t new. In 2009, the Council of Ontario Universities and students together lobbied the Minister of Health to reinstate UHIP contributors to OHIP without success. But the issue seems to have slipped down on the Univeristy’s agenda.

The reality is that the costs of UHIP to international students put Ontario universities at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting international talent. In Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, international students are covered under provincial health plans either immediately or after a six- or 12-month waiting period.

Three of the top four international host countries — the United Kingdom, France and Germany — offer public health care to international students.

Rather than providing a sensible safety net for our international scholars and academics, UHIP acts as a disincentive to many potential applicants to Queen’s: it narrows candidates down to those who can afford it rather than those who excel in their fields.

And, even if you could afford it, why would you choose to study somewhere where you had to pay unpredictable premiums for a second-tier service? The fact that other Canadian provinces cover international students under their respective provincial plans acts as a further disincentive to come to Ontario.

Principal Woolf’s active and continued endorsement of public healthcare for international students and faculty is a prerequisite to realizing his aspiration for a genuinely diverse, international campus.

Attracting and retaining international talent goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a diverse campus. It’s a critical component in enabling Queen’s to become a world-class institution.

Queen’s must become a leader in advocating for a switch to OHIP coverage for international students. If we don’t, we risk falling behind out-of-province and international universities in attracting global talent.

Holly McIndoe is the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) international student affairs co-ordinator.

Becky Pero is the SGPS international student affairs commissioner.

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