No federal quarantine exemptions for Manitobans in need of U.S. health care

The federal government says there is no exemption from the COVID-19-related Quarantine Act for Manitobans who rely on health-care services directly across the border in the United States.

It’s been a tough few months for thousands of people in the southeastern part of the province along the Manitoba-Minnesota border.

They have no longer been able to see their doctor for appointments, follow-up treatments or even prescriptions without being forced to isolate for 14-days when they return.

“It’s really affected us quite severely,” Donna Bartinski said.

The 80-year-old’s family doctor is in Roseau, Minn., and her health care there is covered by Manitoba Health under the Altru Agreement.

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Around 2,000 residents, in the RM of Piney and Buffalo Point First Nation, are covered under the long-standing agreement between Manitoba Health and U.S.-based Altru Health System.

The deal was made to provide closer and quicker access to health care, in Roseau and Warroad, for those who live in that corner of the province. But since the pandemic hit, that access has essentially been taken away.

“My husband and I went at the end of November and got all our prescriptions refilled,” Bartinski said.

But then they had to isolate for the next two weeks.

“Right now what we need is follow-ups with my husband’s heart condition and me with my cancer,” she said. “I have had to cancel two appointments already in Roseau since this started.”

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Bartinski said people in the area are confused by the recent change because up until October, Canadian Border Services Agency would allow them to cross for medical appointments without the need for isolating.

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But the CBSA told Global News it was simply correcting a mistake and there is no exemption allowed.

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“The CBSA is aware that, in the past, some Canadian residents who travelled to the U.S. for medical treatment were exempted from federal quarantine requirements upon their return,” spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said.

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“In these cases, the Order in Council was applied incorrectly. Border services officers have received clarification, and are applying the exemption according to its intended application.”

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But Bartinski and many others say they believe health care should be exempt.

“They don’t want us to go over there shopping… that is fine, but at least let us go there and get our prescriptions and see our family doctor,” she said.

“It is very very frustrating. I don’t see why the federal govt doesn’t look at it to be essential.”

Member of Parliament Ted Falk has been lobbying the federal government for months and told Global News these services are essential and should be exempt.

“I said ‘It’s actually a pretty simple fix.’ They say ‘We are trying to avoid a health-care crisis’ but what they don’t realize is they are creating another health-care crisis,” Falk said.

Falk said it’s creating significant hardships for those who live in the area and many are already able to cross the border for their jobs but not for their appointments.

“They are going back and forth every day for jobs and not needing to quarantine but if it’s just for the sole purpose of a doctors visit or to access health care that’s not allowed,” he said.

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A spokesperson from Brian Pallister’s office said the premier has had many conversations and correspondence with federal counterparts over the past few months but there have been few answers.

The premier addressed his concerns last week at a news conference in Winnipeg.

“We’re real concerned about it,” Pallister said. “We’ve raised it with the federal government. We are continuing to raise it.

“We don’t feel that’s fair or right and we are very concerned that folks shouldn’t be deterred from getting their healthcare the way they have been getting it.”

Federal Health Minister Patty Hadju and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair do have the authority to make exemptions. Hadju’s office did not respond to multiple requests from Global News about whether she would allow one or not.

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A spokesperson for Blair’s office said there are “very limited exemptions” when it comes to the order.

“Minister Blair discussed this issue with his counterparts from the government of Manitoba at the beginning of December 2020,” his press secretary Mary-Liz Power told Global News in an email.

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“In that meeting, CBSA officials clarified that there is no exemption within the Order in Council that would find residents of Canada who receive Manitoba Health coverage via Altru Health System exempt from quarantine requirements upon returning to Canada.”

Power said they are aware of the difficulties these measures have created but they make all decisions in the best interest of Canadians.

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