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Health card renewals plunged after paper reminders ended

Internal government data released to Village Media under access-to-information laws; letting a health card expire can complicate already stressful medical situations
A nurse is silhouetted behind a glass panel at the Bluewater Health Hospital in Sarnia, Ont., on January 25, 2022.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

About 350 fewer Ontarians a day are renewing their health cards now than in 2019, despite the province's population having grown, figures show. 

The fall seems to be directly linked to the province's decision in November of 2021 to largely stop mailing paper reminders to residents about expiry dates of driver's licences, health cards and car registrations. 

Ontario average monthly driver's licence renewals in 2022 and early 2023 were just under 97 per cent of what they were in 2019 before the pandemic, though the province's population has grown by 7 per cent over that time. 

The situation with health cards looks roughly similar: despite population growth, on average daily health card renewals are running at about 95 per cent of their pre-pandemic level.  

Letting a health card expire can complicate already stressful medical situations. 

Other than in an emergency, Ontario doctors have no obligation to treat people who can't prove they have OHIP coverage; if they don't. the doctor may or may not get paid. 

London Health Sciences Centre spokesperson Steve Robinson wrote in an email that a patient with an expired health card would be treated but then sent an invoice for the cost of their care. However, if they then renewed their health card and showed it to the hospital, the bill would be withdrawn. That's consistent with another response from Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. 

At health clinics, people with an expired health card may have to leave a deposit.

As well, people with expired health cards aren't eligible for the northern Ontario Travel Grant, may be denied an appointment with a specialist, and may have to pay upfront for medical testing. 

The data was released by the Ministry of Health to Village Media under access-to-information laws.

"In my riding, I would say not a week goes by that I don't have a family come to me (over this issue)," said opposition health critic France Gélinas. 

"Many people in my riding do not have a primary care provider. They don't have a physician or nurse practitioner. So they go to a walk-in clinic, because they're sick enough to finally reach out for care, and their health card is past its due date, and the clinic charges them. Some of them have money, and they pay, but a lot of them don't have money, and they just go back home sick."

Gélinas pointed out that in her sprawling northern riding, it can take time and effort to get to a Service Ontario office, so people who are surprised to find they have an expired health card can't necessarily fix the problem immediately. 

"It’s important for people to keep their Ontario government products up to date by renewing on time. Most renewal deadlines fall on people’s birthday — an easy way to remember," government spokesperson Praveen Senthinathan wrote in an email. "Over the past number of years, the government has been embracing digital technology to expand its online services to give customers more options and an improved customer experience."

Senthinathan did not respond to questions about the fall in health card renewals.

Renewals appear to have fallen most in lower-income neighbourhoods in major Ontario cities, based on postal code data released by the ministry

Patrick Cain

About the Author: Patrick Cain

Patrick is an online writer and editor in Toronto, focused mostly on data, FOI, maps and visualizations. He has won some awards, been a beat reporter covering digital privacy and cannabis, and started an FOI case that ended in the Supreme Court
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