How Much Do You Know About Healthcare in Canada?
Are you thinking about relocating to Canada? Whether you envision making Canada a stop in your travels abroad as a digital nomad, or you’re hoping to establish a permanent home in that country, you owe it to yourself to learn about healthcare in Canada before booking an itinerary.
The Canadian public healthcare system, known as Medicare, is funded by taxes. It covers all care deemed “medically necessary,” including hospital and doctor visits, but generally does not provide prescription, dental, or vision coverage. This program is only available to citizens, permanent residents, some people with Canadian work permits, and some refugees. Canadian provinces and territories each manage their own separate healthcare systems.
Private insurance options make medical care accessible for those who don’t qualify for Canada’s public system. Therefore concerns about the availability of healthcare need not stand in your way if you are visiting or making a home in Canada. And being in Canada means you can access some of the world’s best healthcare!
Canada Has Thirteen Public Healthcare Systems
There is no one centrally managed Canadian healthcare system. Instead, Canada’s 13 provinces and territories each administer their own separate public healthcare systems. Provinces and territories are all required to cover medically necessary treatments, but their definitions of what is “medically necessary” can differ.
Healthcare in Canada also has regional differences in enrollment standards. Some areas have waiting periods before people can access government healthcare. There may be residency requirements to sign up for healthcare, though the terms vary by province and territory. Anyone who is temporarily restricted from enrolling in Medicare has the option to purchase private insurance until their public insurance can begin.
Don’t worry, this regional system hasn’t resulted in a bureaucratic nightmare! For Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and others living in Canada who are eligible for Medicare, the enrollment process is straightforward.
Here are links to enrollment information for Canada’s 13 provinces and territories:
- Alberta: Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP)
- British Columbia: Medical Services Plan (MSP)
- Manitoba: Health and Seniors Care
- New Brunswick: Medicare Registration
- Newfoundland and Labrador: Health and Community Services (MCP)
- Northwest Territories: Health and Social Services
- Nova Scotia: Medical Services Insurance (MSI)
- Nunavut: Nunavut Health Care Plan
- Ontario: Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP)
- Prince Edward Island: PEI Health Card
- Quebec: Québec Health Insurance Plan
- Saskatchewan: eHealth Saskatchewan
- Yukon: Yukon Health Insurance Plan
Principles of Canada Public’s Healthcare System
How does the Canadian healthcare system work? The 1984 Canada Health Act set standards that still guide Canada today, including five founding principles:
- Public administration: this is conducted on a nonprofit basis
- Comprehensiveness: provincial health plans must cover all services that are medically necessary (though the determination of what care is medically necessary can vary by region)
- Universality: all residents in Canada must have access to public healthcare
- Portability: residents must be covered while traveling within Canada and, with limitations, while outside the country
- Accessibility: access to health services must be reasonable, uniform, and free of financial or other barriers
Is Healthcare in Canada Free?
For Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and other eligible persons who have enrolled in their province or territory’s version of Medicare, the answer is yes, healthcare is free…to a degree. Patients do not have to pay any fees to receive required medical care in a hospital or at a physician’s office. Covered services include childbirth, surgery, and prescription drugs given in a hospital.
There are restrictions within Canada’s public system. Prescription drugs taken outside a hospital setting are often not covered. Dental care, vision care, and rehabilitation services are also usually not covered by Medicare. Medically unnecessary cosmetic surgery is not covered.
Regional differences exist in coverage. For example, the province of Quebec provides prescription drug coverage. There are also public programs to offer vision and dental care to seniors and children. But most Canadians rely on supplemental private insurance plans to handle medical expenses left out of Medicare.
How does the Canadian healthcare system work for those in the country who do not qualify for the public system? These people will need to pay for their healthcare themselves, either out of pocket or by signing up for a private insurance plan. Though everyone, including tourists and short-term residents, will receive necessary emergency care, those costs are not covered by the Canadian healthcare system. Therefore, it’s a good idea to have great international travel medical insurance or international health insurance.
How to Access and Receive Healthcare in Canada
The first step to access Canadian healthcare is to determine if you can sign up for Medicare. If you are eligible, follow the enrollment process for your province or territory. In addition, remember that even if you qualify for this healthcare, not all medical services are covered by this public program. To make sure you have dental care, vision care, and prescription drug coverage, you may need to sign up for private insurance, either on your own or through your employer.
People in Canada who are not eligible for Medicare need to sign up for private health insurance in order to obtain health coverage. Fortunately, if you are an expat, there are several global medical insurance plans that provide care in Canada, as well as when you travel outside the country.
Without Insurance, Healthcare in Canada is Expensive
How is healthcare in Canada for those without insurance? With no public or private insurance, patients are expected to pay for their medical care. Though Canadian healthcare costs are overseen by the government, uninsured patients can be charged higher rates. For example, one Ontario hospital charges non-residents hundreds of dollars more for healthcare (all prices in $CAD):
- MRI: Non-resident of Canada $2,030
- Lab tests: Non-resident of Canada $360
- X-Ray: Non-resident of Canada cost starts at $49
Signing up with a general practitioner will ensure you have a provider to oversee your medical care. However, finding an office that is accepting new patients may be difficult, particularly in rural areas. If you need help finding a primary care physician, the health insurance offices in all provinces and territories have resources to assist you. There may also be immigrant-serving organizations or expat communities that can offer guidance. For those with private insurance, your insurer should be able to tell you about providers.
Even without a primary care physician, you can easily access medical care in Canada. For non-emergency situations, visit a walk-in clinic or community health center. Services like Medimap are available to help you find a clinic, as well as specialized care providers.
If you require emergency care, you can call 911 for free. Emergency medical services will always be provided, no matter your residency status. This is the case even if you don’t have public or private insurance. However, you may be billed for any care you receive.
Healthcare Options for Foreigners and Expatriates in Canada
How is healthcare in Canada for international citizens? In general, foreigners and expats won’t immediately receive coverage via Canada’s public healthcare system. They will receive medical treatment if there is an emergency, but if they don’t have a global health insurance plan they may have to pay for it. Some, such as those with a Canadian work permit and employer, may eventually qualify for Medicare.
Everyone in Canada, including citizens and permanent residents, must adhere to the residency requirements of their province or territory to access public healthcare. In Ontario, applicants must physically be in the province for 153 days in any 12‑month period, and for at least 153 days of their first 183 days in the province.
Even if you are able to join Canada’s public system, coverage is usually only good within the country. If you plan to travel outside Canada, you will need an international medical insurance plan to take care of your medical needs.
As an international citizen in Canada, we recommend you consider a Global Health Insurance Plan to cover you in Canada and worldwide. Some options:
Insurance for Expatriates Living in Canada
- The flexibility to tailor a plan to suit your individual needs
- Access to Cigna Global’s trusted network of hospitals and doctors
- The convenience and confidence of 24/7/365 customer service
Insurance for US Citizens Living in Canada
- Premium Benefits, Coverage and Service
- Define your deductible and prescription benefits
- For Foreigners in the US or US Citizens Abroad
Travel Insurance for Visitors to Canada
If you are visiting Canada as a tourist or for a short-term trip, travel medical insurance can provide you with needed coverage. While you will be able to receive medical care in an emergency in Canada without this insurance, you could also have to pay steep fees for these services.
- Comprehensive trip protection for U.S. residents traveling abroad.
- Optional rental car collision coverage available.
- Optional Cancel for Any Reason coverage available (if eligible).
Who Is Eligible to Enroll in Canada’s Public Healthcare System
Enrollment in Medicare varies by region, but in general is open to:
- Canadian citizens
- Permanent residents
- Indigenous people
- Some refugees
- People with valid Canadian work permits and full-time employment
There are residency requirements in some provincial and territorial health systems. You will have to adhere to the rules to sign up for healthcare in the territory or province you live in.
Private vs. Public Care in Canada
Most Canadians have supplemental private coverage in addition to their public insurance. The majority of private plans come from employers. Private insurance is available to cover services such as:
- Dental care
- Vision care
- Prescription drugs
- Ambulance services
- Physical therapy
- Psychologist visits
Outside of Quebec, Canadians are not permitted to purchase private insurance for care that is covered by the public Canadian healthcare system. The reasoning for this is a desire not to undermine the principle of universal access to healthcare.
Challenges for Canadian Healthcare
Healthcare in Canada is not perfect. More doctors practice in urban areas than rural ones. There can be lengthy wait times for non-urgent procedures. There are limitations on coverage for prescription drugs. Hundreds of thousands of people live in Canada without access to insurance. The restrictions on private insurance have even been challenged.
Despite these issues, Canadians greatly appreciate their healthcare system. This country delivers quality public care with no out-of-pocket costs to a vast majority of its population. Though prescription drug coverage is limited, Canada sets a maximum price for patented drugs to deliver lower drug prices for Canadians — and for visitors from the United States who make the trek across the border to get cheaper prescriptions. Canada is a world leader in healthcare. With the right planning, visitors to Canada can also access this superlative healthcare system.
Health Insurance in Other Countries
- Health Insurance in Mexico
- Medical Insurance in Costa Rica
- USA Health Insurance – Coverage in the United States for Foreigners