Concordia International Students Have Most Expensive Healthcare Plan in Country

Unpacking International Student Healthcare Costs At Concordia

Graphic Paul Newcombe

Since Pauline Bosteels first came to Concordia from France to study international business in 2014, she’s encountered a number of issues with the university.

First with the credit system, then with a program transfer, and finally with the international student health plan.

“I just felt like the administration was not trying to help us, but going against education,” she said.

As of 2019-2020, Concordia’s mandatory international student healthcare plan costs international students $1,176 annually—making it the most expensive plan in Canada.

Covered by Blue Cross, like other universities in Montreal, Concordia’s plan is more expensive than the rest by nearly $100.

This, for roughly the same amount and in some cases, even less coverage.

There is no universal plan set out by Quebec’s government to cover all universities in the province.

Each university negotiates its own plan with one of two insurance providers—Blue Cross and Sun Life—with the exception of Université Laval, Université de Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke, and Université de Québec who negotiate a group coverage plan under Desjardins.

Under regulations set out by the Quebec Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion and the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, all international students must be covered by a healthcare plan that meets government standards for the duration of their stay in Canada.

But with rising international tuition, and the most expensive healthcare plan in the country, Concordia is putting its international students in financial jeopardy.

“The first year, I remember I paid $800. The second year I paid like $1000, it just increased more and more,” said Bosteels. “It was just so expensive, and now it’s my last semester […] I have to pay $1,200 and I only have one class.”

These high prices can negatively impact students even beyond the financial side of things.

Financial stress can put a strain on academic performance, and failure to pay up on time can prevent students from participating in exactly the things the university encourages them to participate in.

“I don’t have help from my parents, so it puts another $1,000 [on my plate]. I had this class in accounting and I failed it like three times and because I had this financial stress, it prevented me from really focusing on that class.”

Pauline Bosteels

“I don’t have help from my parents, so it puts another $1,000 [on my plate],” Bosteels said. “I had this class in accounting and I failed it like three times. Because I had this financial stress, it prevented me from really focusing on that class, which I have to pass and it’s a vicious cycle for me.”

To add to this stress, Bosteels said she had to overcome roadblocks placed in front of her when attempting to go on exchange in Spain.

Given that she was unable to pay for her semester on time, a hold was placed on her account and she was unable to access documentation required for her to complete her registration process for the exchange.

“I couldn’t access my [transcript], so I couldn’t send it to Spain on time,” she explained. “I had to contact the Dean to get a letter so I could go and study abroad, and all of this because of a hold on my account because I had like $500 to pay.”

“I felt that this was unfair and counter to what they want us to do,” she continued. “They say ‘Do it, but at the same time, don’t do it because you have something to pay.’”

But, why are Concordia’s rates for international students so high when its resident student healthcare plan is among the least expensive?

To start, the domestic student healthcare plan is kept at a lower cost by the fact that it merely adds extended coverage for services like dental, health, and mental health care specialists, and prescription drug costs to supplement the coverage offered by the Régie d’assurances maladie du Québec.

International students are not covered by the RAMQ, and so not only must their plan cover the extra services covered under our Studentcare plan, it must also cover basic services like medical examinations and procedures.

Because the plan has to cover so much more than a resident undergraduate student’s plan, it’s naturally more expensive.

This, however, doesn’t explain why Concordia can’t offer a plan at a rate comparable to other universities in Montreal and across Canada—the reason for that being the structure of the system itself.

The plan is currently under the jurisdiction of the university’s administration.

They negotiate the coverage and premiums every few years, and from what it seems, they haven’t had much luck negotiating for better rates or more coverage in recent years.

“It’s a big contrast because Concordia international students have the most expensive health and dental plan in the country whereas the Concordia Student Union undergrads [with resident status] have the least expensive health and dental plan,” explained CSU Finance Coordinator, Désirée Blizzard.

After hearing complaints from international students about the financial burden this plan presents and noticing the premium’s cost continuing to trend up, the Concordia Student Union is aiming to take on this responsibility moving forward.

“Based on what we’d seen around the country, in the provinces that do have international student health plans, every single one of them is cheaper, some are significantly cheaper,” said former CSU finance coordinator John Hutton.

Manitoba’s plan costs approximately $630 a year, while Ontario is comparable to that.

In Quebec, the cheapest one hovers around $900 while Concordia’s is over $1,100.

“Based on what we saw with Concordia not seeming to put a lot of effort into their health plan negotiations, we thought the insurance company was basically walking all over them,” he continued.

The CSU believes that given their history of success in negotiating an affordable plan with sufficient coverage for domestic students under Studentcare with Desjardins, they would be able to negotiate for a better plan for international students as well.

“If you look at the Concordia Student Union health and dental plan for non-international students, it is the best in Canada,” said CSU General Coordinator Chris Kalafatidis. “If you look at the health and dental plan for international students, it is the worst in Canada. To me, it’s just common sense that we could do better.”

In January 2019, ahead of the university’s renegotiation of the plan, the union presented the administration with a proposal for their management of the international student healthcare plan in collaboration with the Graduate Students’ Association.

The proposal stated that the student movement advocates for international students to receive full coverage under medicare and for expansion of medicare to include more services such as mental health care, while stressing that more questions should be asked.

“Why is most health care covered but not dental care, vision care, or pharmaceuticals? […] Why do student unions need to have health plans in the first place?” the proposal prompts.

It called on the university not to sign a new agreement with a health insurance provider for international students.

Instead, they urged the university to transfer management and responsibility of the international student health plan to the CSU and GSA who will then take the necessary steps to have a plan in place for September 2019.

The proposal also added that if necessary, the CSU wants the administration to extend the existing contract with Blue Cross for just long enough to provide international students with coverage until a new CSU and GSA plan could take effect on Sept. 1, 2019.

In the meantime, the administration went ahead and has already negotiated a new plan for the 2019-2020 school year with input from student representatives, according to Interim President Graham Carr.

“We are just bringing into effect a new plan, which will be in effect for the next two years,” he said. “Both the CSU and the GSA were invited to participate in the selection of the service provider and the details of the plan that’s coming into effect.”

Carr says they will continue to include student representatives in discussions pertaining to the health plan, and hope to hear more suggestions from international students to improve the plan.

“Health plans are complicated, they’re important, and there are a range of options out there,” said Carr. “I feel very confident that the university is trying to provide high quality, comprehensive care for international students.”

While the administration sees the work they’re doing as enough, the transfer of the management of the plan to the CSU is not off the table yet, said Blizzard.

She said the CSU is aiming to take on the plan and renegotiate for better coverage and more affordability, to come into effect in 2020-2021.

While the CSU is in the hands of a new executive team, the goal remains the same.

This year’s team will prioritize this project in order to offer international students the better coverage for less, said Kalafatidis.

“The CSU’s job is to be there for every student, not just non-international students,” said Kalafatidis. “International students are a very important part of this university. In fact, if you look at Concordia’s history, we’ve always been a university with a very active participation from international students, so it’s a no-brainer that we need to do what’s right for [them].”

In March 2019, a referendum was passed with students voting overwhelmingly in favour of mandating the CSU to take on the responsibility of managing the health care plan for international students.

“International students are not convinced that the cost of the health insurance is providing sufficient value to them,” reads a statement sent to the Dean of Students in late May.

“With a better understanding of the process Concordia is using to manage and negotiate the plan for international students, we are more convinced than ever that there is significant room for cost improvement as well as improved services for all international students.”

While this referendum has passed—proving this is what students want—that doesn’t mean the university is quite ready to give up control.

Kalafatidis expressed that there has been pushback from the administration on this project.

“They seem to not understand that we can do a better job with this plan, at least when we speak to them, that’s what they seem to show,” he said.

“They seem to think that they’re more equipped, they believe they have a team that’s been there for a long time, they have the expertise, they’re adapted specifically for international students, but I don’t see why it would be any different under our care.”

Kalafitidis said the administration has a tendency to try and wait out executive teams from year to year in hopes the new team won’t bring an issue with the administration to the table under their mandate.

The new executive team feels they’ve done a good job demonstrating the importance of this issue and they won’t just go away in co-signing the statement released in May.

He believes with the right amount of pressure, it’s only a matter of time before the administration gives up the plan and complies in transferring the plan to the CSU and GSA.

“At the end of the day, there is only so long that you can hold onto something when it’s having a direct, negative impact on your students. If they don’t want to do the right thing, we will have to take this to the students.”

While there may be hope of an improved plan moving forward, for Bosteels, her time at Concordia has left her with a sour taste in her mouth.

“All of [my bad experiences] made me hate the system and institution that Concordia is. It’s a business school, they make money,” she said, explaining how all of the costs related to studying in her program here have added up. “It’s ridiculous, a ridiculous amount of money.”