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International student shocked by $123K in medical bills after 24-day Winnipeg hospital stay

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2021-07-14 Renée Lilley
a man sitting on a bench: Calvin Lugalambi, who plans to start classes at the University of Manitoba this fall, says he's facing bills totalling over $123,000 after a long stay in hospital. © Patrick Foucault/CBC Calvin Lugalambi, who plans to start classes at the University of Manitoba this fall, says he's facing bills totalling over $123,000 after a long stay in hospital.

An international student at the University of Manitoba says he's facing medical bills totalling over $123,000 after a long stay in two Winnipeg hospitals — and he hopes his story will spur changes for other people in his situation.

Calvin Lugalambi is set to study civil engineering at the University of Manitoba this fall, after completing foundational courses at the International College of Manitoba.

He says he started experiencing severe abdominal pain last May, after his final winter term. He went to urgent care at Winnipeg's Victoria General Hospital and was later sent to St. Boniface Hospital for emergency surgery on what turned out to be an intestinal obstruction.

That's when he found out that because he was between schools, his insurance had expired.

"I said ... wow, this is tough. But I said, you know, the only thing I can do is to get help anyway. So run what you need to do, we can deal with that later as I try to ... get that sorted."

He says it wasn't made clear to him that he'd need to buy additional insurance to cover the time he was between schools.

"I'm a newcomer here," Lugalambi said in an interview with CBC News. "I don't know the rules."

The International College of Manitoba's coverage provider, Guard.Me, issued retroactive insurance dating back to May 4 — two days after he was diagnosed with multiple adhesions in his small intestine.

But when he applied to have his hospital costs covered, the company declined, saying his stomach illness was a pre-existing conditions because it was diagnosed two days before they started the gap insurance.

The University of Manitoba is partnered with Manitoba Blue Cross to cover insurance for international students, but it was also unable to cover him because he had no Manitoba health card and was not yet a student at the U of M. 

Guard.Me declined to comment on Lugalambi's case. 

Lugalambi's hospital stay ended up extending to more than three weeks, after he contracted COVID-19, and his medical bills now include thousands of dollars for each night of his stay.

A friend has recently set up a GoFundMe page to help Lugalambi.

"He's already paying more than double what the fees are for [domestic students]," said Brett Carter. "Somebody has to do something."

The campaign is trying to raise $126,000 to cover Lugalambi's medical expenses and travel expenses for his mom, who came to Winnipeg to care for him while he recovered.

Lugalambi first came to Canada from Uganda in 2018 with his twin brother, Conrad, in hopes of pursuing a post-secondary education.

Conrad says watching his brother go through such a tough time was hard on everybody. 

"My family was scared," he said. "They are thousands of miles away.… All they can do is call and hope for the best."

'We need them to be fair'

The hospital has suggested a decade-long payment plan of $1,000 per month, which Lugalambi says he still cannot afford.

"That's not too kind for me at the moment, because I'm unable to pay. We don't possess that money," Lugalambi says.

"I have to worry about my next semester — I don't know where that's going to come from. But again, we have to stay positive in hard times."

In 2018, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government amended the Health Services Insurances Act, repealing a clause that gave international post-secondary students access to universal health care. Schools have provided private insurance options for international students since.

"This particular situation … [is] a result of the PC government willingly clawing back Manitoba health cards from international students simply to save a few million dollars back in 2018," said Alexandra Koslock, the Manitoba chair of the Canadian Federation of Students.

International students were "seen as easy targets to reduce budget expenses because of their citizenship status," she said in an interview.

In a statement to CBC News, the province said supplemental medical insurance is available to students through their schools.

Lugalambi says he made an appeal to Manitoba Health, but they said they cannot help him.

He hopes his story will draw attention to others who may be going through similar situations and encourage the province to make changes for international students. 

"I believe we contribute a lot to this community. We come here from so far.… Some people [empty] their pockets so they can educate their kids," he said. 

"We appreciate the opportunity, but we need them to be fair.… If we get health complications, many of us may not be able to survive because we don't have the ability to pay." 

Lugalambi says despite everything, he plans to finish school here. 

"I don't want my stay in Canada to be affected by this. I want to finish my education and progress well and be a constructive member of society, as I intended to be."

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