Healthcare in Canada is one of the most hotly debated topics in North America, especially as the debate continues on whether the USA would benefit from adopting a similar healthcare system to that which is in operation in Canada.

Canada offers all citizens and permanent residents universal public health insurance, which affords low-cost access to doctors and health practitioners. Unfortunately, expats with temporary residency in Canada are not eligible for the same benefits.

This insurance system, known as Medicare, allows individuals to seek treatment at both private and public healthcare facilities; though the overwhelming majority of hospitals, clinics and practices in Canada are, in fact, private. Furthermore, the system does not dictate which doctor or service provider an individual must use. 

Despite many myths about the shortage of doctors in the country, the lack of spending, and the extent of the stifling bureaucracy, Canada upholds an exemplary standard of healthcare, and has the low infant mortality rates and the high life expectancy rates to prove it. 

Thus, even if expats don’t qualify for Medicare, and are forced to take out a more expensive private health insurance plan, they can rest assured that they will certainly receive high-quality treatment administered by well-trained professionals. 

Public healthcare in Canada

Medicare is based on the Health Act of 1984 and guarantees citizens and those with permanent residency in Canada comprehensive, universal and accessible care. The system is funded publicly by taxes, but doctors and hospitals run their own businesses privately – billing the government for services rendered. 

Each province or territory defines what is and what is not covered by their particular health insurance plan, but, for the most part, the only things not covered are optometry, ambulance services, dentistry, home care, long-term care and outpatient prescription drugs. All core health services, such as acute hospital care and most physician services are covered. This affords expats and locals alike a fair opportunity to receive treatment at a universally high standard.

All things considered, the most pointed downfall of the system is the fact that waiting times can be long. Though emergency situations are addressed immediately, some individuals report waiting up to four weeks for a mere consultation and even up to six months for an important surgery.  

There is also a lack of general practitioners and many won’t take new patients, not to mention waiting lists are long for those who will. To make matters more frustrating, specialists demand a referral from a general practitioner before they will provide treatment. 

Even in light of these setbacks, though, most Canadians and foreign residents are reportedly happy with the system.

Getting a health insurance card in Canada

Expats moving to Canada should make it a priority to apply for a medical card upon arrival. Application forms are available online, or even at local pharmacies, doctors' offices or hospitals. Identification in the form of a birth certificate or passport and confirmation of permanent residence or permanent resident card is required to complete the process.

Only once this documentation has been obtained can expats qualify to receive Medicare treatment of any kind. In most Canadian territories and provinces, each individual member of a family receives a unique personal identification number and accompanying card.

Insurance co-pays do vary across the provinces and territories in respect to each location’s political policies and distribution of wealth, but are incredibly cheap across the board. Do note that medical care offered in one province or territory may not be honoured in another, thus it is often recommended to purchase private health insurance if travelling across Canada. 

In the interim, while expats are waiting for their health insurance card in Canada (a three-month waiting period is standard), it is recommended they take out private health insurance. 

Private health insurance in Canada

Private health insurance in Canada is used by locals and residents as a way to supplement Medicare, and is used by temporary residents as a main source of cover. 

Various packages are on offer, and expats will need to carefully evaluate their priorities to see which plan and service provider is most suitable.

Premiums do tend to be on the expensive side, and thus if relocating to Canada with a job offer in place, expats should negotiate private insurance as part of their employment package.

Pharmacies in Canada

Pharmacies can easily be found in all major Canadian cities. They can be located within drug stores, grocery stores and large department stores, as well as attached to hospitals and medical clinics.

Expats will find that they can get most prescription medicines at a pharmacy in Canada. However, as some medicines are expensive, it is best to keep the receipt in order to claim the cost from either Medicare or a private health insurer.

Emergency medical services in Canada

Emergency medical services in Canada are regulated by each individual province and, by law, must be provided to anyone in need.

In case of a medical emergency, an ambulance can be requested by dialling 911. Paramedics in Canada are highly trained and can provide an excellent level of service at the scene of an accident or emergency.