A healthy debate

Earlier this semester, provincial legislation was passed that will grant international students attending university in the province, as well as their dependants, the same healthcare coverage enjoyed by Manitobans, beginning April 2012. While the reasons stated for this recent move by the Manitoba government include giving our province a competitive edge in attracting foreign students, it has been met with dissent by tax payers’ watchdog groups and the general public alike. Dissenters criticize the move on grounds that since international students do not pay taxes, they should not be able to enjoy the benefits of our publicly funded health-care system. One commentator for the Winnipeg Sun went so far as to label it “medical madness.”

Unfortunately, the dissenters’ argument is based on the main premise that international students do not pay taxes — a premise that is simply false. Putting aside for the moment whether those students who do not pay taxes should be eligible for provincially funded health care, the fact of the matter is that the many international students do pay taxes. Since the general public (and, as it would seem, even the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who decried this motion), seem to have no idea as to the Canada Revenue Agency’s taxation policy on international students, I will take a moment to break it down.

First of all, many international students can fall into the tax group of “deemed resident.” In order to be considered a deemed resident, one must meet certain (admittedly vague) criteria, such as having a Canadian residence, owning property in Canada (such as a car or furniture), having dependents who accompany you to Canada, being in Canada for more than six months in a year, and having “social ties” in Canada. Other factors may include having a Canadian driver’s licence, bank account, etc.. Given this criteria, it would seem that a large number of international students would fall into this category.

The tax obligations for people who fall under this category are essentially as hefty (if not more so) than the average Canadian citizen. Not only do people in this category have to file an income tax return, they have to claim their world-wide income on this return, and pay taxes accordingly. This is of course excluding those international students who work on campus and pay taxes on their Canadian earnings anyway.

The line of argument here might then be that even though international students do technically have to file tax returns, they do not make enough money (even globally) to pay taxes, and as such should not receive benefits from a system they have not paid into. However, this is largely the case for any other Canadian low-income student who is not working, so why would the situation be any different?
Moreover, many and perhaps the majority of students are young, healthy adults who do not need any serious medical care. Much of the health care budget goes to providing health care for an aging population, who require more frequent and more serious medical care (including long-term treatments like chemotherapy). It makes sense for Canadian citizens to pay into this, as they themselves will require this assistance as they age. However, international students, who will only be in the country for a few short years, will not be around long enough to reap the benefits of paying into the health care system. Also, if international students required medical treatment that would put a serious sort of strain on our health care system (i.e. cancer treatment), they would be in much too ill-health to continue studying and return home. So at worst, the complaint is against, on average, probably no more than a few walk-in visits and occasionally, in serious circumstances, an ER visit.

Essentially, the medical coverage represents little more than an “in case of emergency” fund — something that everyone should be given a right to anyway.
It is also a completely unfounded myth that students will enrol in Manitoban universities just to receive free health care. Considering the amount of money international students fork out each semester for tuition, room, board and other living costs is much more than would be spent on health care at home.
This leads to the subsequent point, that international students already pay extortionate student fees — almost three times as much as Canadian students. This extra money is going directly into the betterment of our universities, which, naturally, local students make the most use of (and pay a lot less into). Also, the money they bring from their home countries is going directly into the local economy. For these reasons, it is in our best interest, economically, to attract foreign students, and at the low cost of at most a couple of walk-in visits and emergency medical coverage, we still get the better end of the deal.
However, the largest cause of the backlash to this decision seems to be a classic case of “us versus them” mentality — why should they have access to our healthcare? Sadly, this pervasive attitude is one that is not so easily dispelled by argument. As such, I will leave this question as something for the reader to dwell on.

Melissa Hiebert has no problem with international students getting health coverage.