International students face confusion and hefty overdue bills following MSP raise

News Provincial

Students say they were not informed about the raise for over a year

international student stock imge
Stock photo by Toa Heftiba via Unsplash.

In January 2020, B.C. did away with Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums for B.C. residents, fulfilling a 2017 campaign promise by Premier John Horgan. At the same time, however, the province raised MSP fees from $37.50 to $75 per month for the more than 130 000 international students currently living in B.C.. Several international students say they were not informed about the raise until months after the fact, and now face bills of over $900.

The Martlet spoke with several international students that did not receive MSP notifications about the changes to their account. The MSP is the vehicle through which B.C. residents receive subsidized health care from the government. MSP users are able to view their account balances online.

None of them received an email informing them of the change. Although statements may have been sent through the mail, they say they did not receive a letter. Without this information to the contrary, these students thought that the elimination of the premiums applied to everyone.

In an email to the Martlet, the B.C. Ministry of Finance stated that they informed international students about the MSP raise by updating all provincial and post-secondary websites, posting a news release, and mailing monthly letters to all international students. They admitted that international students who have out-of-date mailing addresses registered with the province and their post-secondary institution may not have received these notices. 

In December, Revenue Services of British Columbia began contacting international students about their overdue MSP payments. Many of those contacted were left wondering how they had missed the raise and how they were going to pay off the overdue invoices. 

“It genuinely feels predatory,” Byun said. “Like they’re taking advantage of my ignorance in this situation.”

“On the MSP invoices that I was receiving leading up to 2020, they were all saying that on January [1], 2020 you won’t have to pay anything,” Andres Byun, an international student in computer science, told the Martlet. 

Alyssa Jackson, a third-year international student in political science, told the Martlet that at first she thought the notice from B.C. Revenue Services was a scam when she saw that she owed $975. She had been getting calls but looked up the number and saw it was frequently reported for spam, so assumed it was fake.

Jackson says that the only saving grace for her is that the government is allowing her to pay back the amount in installments. She says that she had been near tears thinking that she needed to pay back $975 at once, which due to impending tuition payments and other expenses she can’t afford. 

International students are only allowed to work part-time while in Canada and many already struggle to deal with tuition fees in excess of $20 000 a year. Over the last three years, UVic has raised its international tuition by over 35 per cent. A 2018 survey by the UVSS Food Bank and Free Store found that 40 per cent of their users are international students.

The other problem international students are encountering is the creation of a new MSP account under their name, for which they have been given no information. Their overdue invoices are being posted to this account instead of their original account, causing further confusion and an inability to see what they owe.

Byun says that on his old account he had had automatic notifications set up; however, this was not an available feature on the new account so he did not receive an email informing him about the new account and his outstanding bills. Instead, this was apparently done through mail and due to the government having an outdated address on file for him, he never received the letters.

As an international student, Byun says that his living and work arrangements are constantly changing and with the frequent moves his biggest priority is not necessarily whether his government mailing address is correct. He says that this is why he had set up automatic notifications and relied on email to inform him of changes made to his account. 

Heading into another uncertain year, Byun says that MSP premiums were the last thing he was thinking he’d have to worry about.

“It genuinely feels predatory,” Byun said. “Like they’re taking advantage of my ignorance in this situation.”

Byun and Jackson are just two of many international students just finding out about the MSP raise and their mountain of overdue bills.