Stressful wait for health card enough to make them sick

Aggravation, financial fears mount for frustrated applicants who apply but receive, hear nothing for months on end amid processing backlog


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Applicants are still waiting months for a Manitoba Health card amid a backlog that began earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the province refusing to disclose data on processing times.

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Applicants are still waiting months for a Manitoba Health card amid a backlog that began earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the province refusing to disclose data on processing times.

Staff trying to clear the pandemic logjam were inundated with a new wave of requests during the spring and summer from thousands of Ukrainians fleeing war, and work permit holders and refugees who’ve arrived since COVID-19 travel restrictions were eased.

Manitoba Health receives about 1,000 applications, 800 phone calls and up to 300 in-person visits per day, with a 16-member team tasked with processing the backlog, a government spokeswoman said.

“The summer and early fall months are typically times of higher volumes of applications received,” she wrote in an email. “Applications are evaluated based on the date received and type of application.”

Despite voluntarily providing data to the Free Press more than a year ago and other media as recently as last month, the province refused to say this week how long applicants are waiting to receive a new or replacement card.

The spokeswoman said the Free Press would have to submit a freedom of information request to obtain the figures.

The data would reveal whether wait times have worsened, remained the same or improved.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon blamed delays on the pandemic and supply-chain issues.

While taking questions after the legislature resumed Wednesday, Gordon said staff are working to clear the backlog.

Asked about the latest processing times, she did not provide any numbers, instead saying her staff could provide the information to a reporter.

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the government’s decision to not disclose the data is wrong and shows a lack of transparency.

Failing to issue essential documents in a timely way, and refusing to inform applicants how long the process will take “further erodes” trust in the Progressive Conservatives, said the Union Station MLA.

“It’s not a good sign when the government makes a decision to withhold information they have, for no good reason,” said Asagwara.

The NDP said vacancies are adding to the backlog.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said there is no “reasonable excuse” for delays.

“If people can’t get a health card they can’t get health care. That’s two essential services that are broken,” he said in a statement. “This has been a known problem for more than a year, and it should have been solved.”

For recent applicants, the wait and lack of communication from Manitoba Health are frustrating.

Robert Ong, 28, said he applied for a health card by email in July 2021, shortly after moving to Winnipeg from Toronto.

At the time, registrations were being accepted by email, mail and fax. In-person visits were on hold due to COVID-19 public-health orders.

The photographer said he submitted all the required documents, but didn’t receive a card.

“I tried to reapply for a second time, but I still didn’t hear anything,” said Ong. “I tried to call once, and I was told it would take some time.”

Ong has used his plastic Ontario Health Insurance card to avoid paying for care when visiting a doctor’s office in Winnipeg. Manitoba continues to issue paper cards.

Ong submitted his application at a time staff were struggling to keep up with demand for new and updated health cards, as well as requests related to COVID-19 immunization cards.

In June 2021, the processing time for a new health card was about eight weeks amid higher-than-usual applications and phone calls, a government spokesperson said at the time.

People making changes to their cards waited about four weeks for a new document.

Before the pandemic, the typical turnaround was 10-15 days for applications submitted by email, mail or fax.

In-person service, which resumed after the province lifted its COVID-19 mandates, usually resulted in a card being issued the same day.

More than 1,000 health card registration requests and 3,189 requests to update cards were open in June 2021, along with more than 10,000 requests for COVID-19 immunization record changes, according to data provided by the government.

The registration and client services team had 12 full time-equivalent employees handling requests. It has since added four.

The pandemic backlog isn’t limited to health cards. Manitobans have waited longer than usual for birth, death and marriage certificates.

Without a health card, people may be presented with a hefty bill when seeking treatment at a hospital or clinic. Those who’ve applied for a card can seek to be reimbursed when their personal health identification number arrives.

After applying by email in early April, Joanna Johnson-Audu was still waiting for her card when she went to St. Boniface Hospital’s emergency room with breathing difficulties July 31.

She was handed a $337 bill.

“I had been putting off paying the bill because I was hoping Manitoba Health would get back to me,” said Johnson-Audu, 19, who is studying neuroscience at the University of Winnipeg.

Days before payment was due, she decided to apply for a health card in person at the registration and client services department’s downtown office, at 300 Carlton St., on Aug. 26.

She spent about three hours there, but her application was processed and a card was issued.

However, Johnson-Audu said she received an email three days later letting her know there was an “error on the information” and a new card would be mailed to her.

She doesn’t know what the error was. The new card listed a different number.

With her card finally in hand, Johnson-Audu, a permanent resident originally from Nigeria, gave her PHIN to the hospital. She did not have to pay the bill.

For her, the lack of communication during the application process was stressful.

“No one reached out to me when I applied, so I didn’t know if it had gotten to my turn (for processing) or if I had made an error in my application,” she said. “You don’t know where your application is after you submit it.

“I feel like (the wait time) is unnecessarily long. If you’re going to be backed up online, then why is it even there (as an option)? I still had to go in person.”

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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