Immigrant women, children suffer during B.C.’s waiting period for healthcare: study


VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Giving birth at home to avoid hospital bills, having to choose between seeing a doctor and buying food, not being able to pay to get emergency care for your crying infant  — these are some of the experiences highlighted in a new study that shows how B.C.’s mandatory waiting period for access to healthcare impacts immigrant women.

Dr. Shira Goldenberg, with UBC’s Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity, says the research was an attempt to draw attention to how British Columbia’s policy has unequal impacts, and why it should be changed.

“What we found is that this three-month wait policy, essentially forces new arrivals to wait this arbitrary period before being able to access health care, and in this way really violates their human rights and undermines their health, particularly for recently arrived women and their children.”

Goldenberg says B.C. is one of the only provinces that doesn’t provide access to provincially-funded healthcare upon arrival. Permanent residents, people on work or student visas, temporary foreign workers, babies born to moms without status all face the mandatory waiting period.

“It covers a huge group of people,” Goldenberg says.

“This research is new but the issue is not.”

Women face ‘impossible choices’ during mandatory waiting period

A key issue that emerged after interviewing 87 women, along with workers from the advocacy groups that support them, was delaying or foregoing sexual and reproductive healthcare.

“With regards to pregnancy, in particular, we heard absolutely horrific experiences that I think many Canadians would not want to recognize as things that wouldn’t be happening in our own country. We frequently heard the care was not accessible for some participants until the last weeks of their pregnancy as a result of the policy, putting women and their families at known risk for negative perinatal and infant health outcomes,” she explains.

“We heard horrible stories about women being so afraid to deliver in the hospital because they didn’t know what the cost of labour and delivery would be. Some needed to do you know home births, not necessarily because that was what they chose, but because they were afraid of the cost.”

RELATED: BC health care failing women: report

One of the common consequences of the waiting period, according to Goldenberg, is that paying out of pocket for medical care leaves women unable to meet other, basic needs during what is already a stressful time.

“We heard study participants describe spending their families last few hundred on a doctor’s visit and medication for a sick child, leaving them without anywhere to sleep or little money for food,” she says.

“Having to make these impossible choices between medical care and basic survival needs doesn’t feel at all to our team like that’s aligned with many of the values that Canadians think we have in terms of universal health care, quite frankly.”

A lack of access to contraception and routine medical care for newborns are other key concerns raised by the study’s participants.

‘They didn’t understand why they were being singled out and not cared for’

Another impact the study revealed was the way that it further marginalizes people by making them feel both unwelcome in Canada and undeserving of care.

“People were shocked and it made them feel that you know there was sort of this false promise of Canada offering a better life of improved security and opportunities and instead many were feeling that the system was really failing to deliver on those basic needs,” Goldenberg says.

“The current policy is very xenophobic, and that was very felt by participants. They described feeling this policy as a form of racism, to be honest, they didn’t understand why they were being singled out and not cared for within the system.”

In March of 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, B.C. waived the waiting period. However, it was reinstated on July 31 of that year. That move, according to Goldenbergerg, “shows they knew it was problematic, that they know it excludes people from care who need it.”

A petition has been launched urging the province to permanently put an end to the waiting period.

Goldenberg says there are no real, significant savings for the healthcare system, since people do seek out medical care once the wait is up.

“These are basic needs that we’re talking about that people can’t control or prevent, and they do need to be seen one way or the other. So in my view, it would be cost-saving to revoke this policy, and it’s the only decision that’s really aligned with human rights or international standards,” she says.

Amid the fourth wave of COVID-19, Goldenberg says repealing the policy should be an urgent priority.

“The migrant community has also been very hard hit by COVID, we have a disproportionate number of people who have been working frontline jobs who have been working on farms and in factories, who have been providing all sorts of essential services for the community — and who are members of our community who deserve the same rights and access as anybody else living in B.C.”

“I think it really just highlights the urgency of repealing this policy and moving towards policies that are based on human rights and social justice.”

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