COLUMN

Some simple ways to save billions of dollars

Canadian taxpayers have become like a company in a recession forced to hire anyone who chooses to apply as a worker

DIANE FRANCIS August 2 1993
COLUMN

Some simple ways to save billions of dollars

Canadian taxpayers have become like a company in a recession forced to hire anyone who chooses to apply as a worker

DIANE FRANCIS August 2 1993

Some simple ways to save billions of dollars

COLUMN

DIANE FRANCIS

Canadian taxpayers have become like a company in a recession forced to hire anyone who chooses to apply as a worker

Canada’s social safety net is stretched to the tearing point because of needless expenditures on people who have not paid their way. For years, it annoyed me that Canadian snowbirds from Ontario could trip down for six months to Florida and, if taken ill, could hit up the provincial health treasury for American-sized fees for hospitals and doctors. The difference in costs was exorbitant: a bed in Ontario costs around $500 per night, about one-quarter the cost of a night’s stay in a Florida hospital. Doctors’ fees down there are routinely double or higher. I was not envious or troubled that the snowbirds flew down there for six months, but upset that Ontario’s generosity was subsidizing Florida condo owners. Perfectly good care at affordable prices existed at home and no one should have been entitled to more than others, I wrote.

Finally, the Ontario government did what most other provinces had done long before and capped the costs it would pay abroad to the same fees paid at home. The result is that snowbirds who want to be fully covered in the United States must pay up to $3,000 in medical insurance premiums to cover the difference between Canadian and U.S. costs.

Now, the latest bee in my bonnet involves the fact that I could bring into Canada both my well-off American parents and my well-off British in-laws as landed immigrants, who could then a) apply for welfare and b) check straight into a hospital and get unlimited care in the form of chemotherapy, surgery and so on. This stems from Canada’s family unification program, which allows Canadian citizens such as myself—or even landed immigrants—to bring most of their immediate relatives into the country. Once in, they get all the privileges of our health care system. By contrast, elderly sponsored immigrants to the United States cannot get medical care under its Medicare scheme until they have lived there for five years.

The immigration of hundreds of thousands of elderly parents into this country has cost us billions of dollars in unnecessary health expenditures. In just one 15-month period, between January, 1992, and April, 1993, a total of 150,000 people immigrated to Canada under the family unification plan. Based on immigration patterns, at least 25,000 of those were aged 65 or more. People in that age group, who make up about 10 per cent of the population, use up nearly 45 per cent of total health care costs.

Following my revelations about this ripoff recently in The Financial Post, reader Harvey Stark of Vancouver wrote: “As a Canadian visa officer at various embassies for 14 years, I was struck by the fact that so many sponsored parents and relatives would be an obvious immediate health care problem on arriving in Canada. Many sponsored parents coming from lesser developed countries had grown up without adequate health care and nutrition, and were already old in medical terms at the age of 40 or 50. However, as they were sponsored dependants, we were basically powerless to refuse them, even in instances when we knew their children had already made arrangements for them to be admitted to hospital on arrival in Canada. Canada’s generous health care system is very well-known abroad.”

There are so-called immigration consultants around the world who have targeted Canada as a preferred destination because of our open-ended social safety net, not simply because we are considered a desirable place to build a career or raise a family. Canadian taxpayers simply cannot afford this foolish unification scheme. It is as if we had become like a company in a recession forced to hire anyone who chooses to apply as a worker.

What’s most annoying are reports from welfare workers that elderly reunited parents routinely apply for, and obtain, welfare payments paid for by the rest of us through taxes. That is because sponsorship of relatives no longer means an iron-clad requirement to support relatives, no matter what. In most provinces, the sponsoring relatives merely have to promise that they can no longer afford to support their parents, or whomever. So almost immediately upon arrival, mom and dad can get pogey without ever having paid a dime of income taxes and without having to prove definitively that they really need the support payments. To boot, some immigrants have their sponsored parents babysit their children and write the “expense” off their income for tax purposes as a day care cost.

If unification is to continue, relatives who otherwise would not qualify to immigrate to Canada should be forced to look after their own health needs and buy private health insurance for at least five, if not 10 years. Besides that, their sponsoring relatives must pledge to support them monetarily for a decade and should also post a bond so that if they cannot support them, they can afford to send them home immediately.

Equally expensive is Canada’s generosity with expatriate citizens who return home after years of living elsewhere and contributing nothing in taxes. Two firsthand cases I know of tell the story. A friend’s sibling with a mental illness was bom in Canada but left as an infant. She returned after 38 years abroad and immediately checked into a psychiatric facility for months. Once discharged, she has continued regular, expensive treatment and is being generously supported in Quebec by welfare payments. Another case involves a friend whose husband lived happily in California for a decade until he experienced kidney failure. He then returned to Canada, where he now lives on welfare in Ontario and undergoes expensive dialysis treatment and other costly medical procedures.

These expats—who returned only because it suited them financially—should be forced to take out health insurance while abroad before they become eligible for free health care upon their return to Canada—or else they should be forced to buy private health care insurance for at least five years after they return to Canada. Such rules are hard-nosed, but we simply cannot afford this. And, quite frankly, we should never have been asked to pay for these costs in the first place.