Are Hospitals Free in Canada?

Hospitals are one of those things that you hope you never need but are glad they are there when you do! The reality is that everyone will visit a hospital in their lifetime – if not for themselves, then for a family or friend. 

It can be stressful and scary to go to a hospital. Adding to that stress are the additional worries about a financial burden from your illness or injury. Luckily, hospitals are free in Canada. Thanks to the universal healthcare system, those seeking medical attention in Canada at a hospital will not have to pay for their treatment.

So, hospitals are free. That’s the quick and easy answer, at least! Let’s dive a bit deeper into the Canadian medical system and how bills and fees work at hospitals in Canada.

Are hospitals in Canada really free?

Any Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada is eligible for public health insurance, part of Canada’s universal health care system. This system is paid for by taxes and covers the vast majority of healthcare services. To receive these free services, you need to have a health insurance card to show to the hospital or other healthcare center. 

Provincial health authorities oversee what services are available to the residents of their province. Therefore, it might change a bit from province to province. In general, though, here are the items covered in Canada’s healthcare system:

  • Emergency services. Everyone, even those without government health care, is eligible for emergency services at a hospital. Emergency services can include accidents or anything you go to the Emergency Room for. 
  • Doctor’s visits, both scheduled and walk-in services.
  • Specialist doctor appointments.
  • Major and minor surgeries.
  • Hospital fees.
  • Diagnostic tests.

It is estimated that 30% of health care costs for Canadians are paid out-of-pocket. These are the items that are generally not covered under the government health insurance, although they are often covered by private or job-provided extended health plans:

  • Prescription medications.
  • Dental and eye care, including prescription eyeglasses.
  • Specialty services like physiotherapy or chiropractic care.
  • Travel insurance.
  • Additional hospital fees like for a private room.
  • Cosmetic procedures.

As you can see, there is a long list of items that are both free and not free. However, hospital visits are free in Canada, no matter the reason you are visiting.

Are hospitals in Canada free for everyone?

As mentioned, Canadian citizens and permanent residents are eligible for free healthcare and receive the services previously mentioned. Emergency hospital care, though, is available to anyone, even if you don’t have a healthcare insurance card. 

However, if you are only on a visa (student or work visas) or are just traveling in Canada, you will need additional insurance to cover a hospital visit. While the hospital is required to treat you, the service is only covered for citizens and permanent residents. 

It is best to visit a hospital when you have an emergency situation, as a walk-in clinic is likely to have higher fees for anyone who is not a resident of that province. 

Is there other insurance or healthcare coverage in Canada?

As we saw earlier, there are some healthcare services that are not covered. That is because they do not fall under the “emergency healthcare” field and do not take place at a hospital. Therefore, most people will have extended health benefits through their employers to cover other healthcare needs such as prescriptions, eyewear, or physiotherapy, among other things. 

There are three options for additional insurance:

  • Utilize your employer-paid extended health care plan. Most employers will offer some kind of extended health care plan, although these benefits don’t always apply to temporary workers on contract, or will only start after working somewhere for a certain amount of time. It is hard to determine exactly how many Canadians receive extended health care, but some sources estimate around 87% of employers offer it.
  • Purchase private extended health care. If your employer does not offer extended health care, or if you are a student, contract worker, freelancer, or unemployed, you might consider purchasing private insurance from a company like Manulife or Blue Cross. These insurance policies can be highly individualized based on your needs. 
  • Pay out of pocket. If you do not have employer extended insurance but do not want to pay premiums on a private plan, the last option is to simply pay out of pocket for any uncovered medical expenses. This is an option for people who are diligent with their money and can save towards expenses like visiting the dentist or purchasing eyewear. Someone with significant medical issues or who need regular prescriptions is unlikely to be able to afford their health care costs without additional insurance. 

Is the healthcare system in Canada good?

Another part of the discussion about the Canadian healthcare system is whether or not it is a good system. Overall, Canada has a good healthcare system and was ranked #14 in the world by a 2016 study. Of course, the cost is one big factor to determine this. Since emergency care is free, that is certainly a big pro of the healthcare system.

Another factor to consider is the time it takes to receive care. Though emergency services at a hospital are generally fairly quick – within hours for anything truly emergent – less serious instances can take a very long time. A 2019 study found that the average wait time to see a specialist doctor, after being referred from a generalist, was 22.6 weeks. Further, diagnostic tests also took a long time – an average of 11.1 weeks for an MRI or 5.4 weeks for a CT scan.

Obviously, waiting for a test or treatment for an illness is worrisome and frustrating. Because there is not the same private system as in the United States, for example, Canadians cannot simply pay for a service and get it done quickly. They are subject to waiting their turn behind a long list of other people. This has led to a rise in medical tourism, with some Canadians flying to the US or Mexico to get the service they need. 

Despite the long wait times, the healthcare system in Canada is good. It provides emergency, hospital care free for all citizens and permanent residents. This means that people do not have to worry about any financial burden due to illness or injury and can just focus on getting better. 

Conclusion

Even though the Canadian healthcare system is complicated when you get into some of the details, it can also be made simple: hospitals are free in Canada. So, when you injure yourself or have symptoms that need to be addressed, the Canadian healthcare system and hospitals are available to help you.

Thais R

I moved to Canada in 2016. This was the best decision that I ever made. I created this website to share what I’ve learned with anyone who’s thinking of moving or travelling to Canada.

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