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Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott answers questions at Queen's Park, in Toronto, on March 18, 2020. In an open letter to Elliott and Ontario Premier Doug Ford this week, the group OHIP For All says urgent action is needed in light of a looming public health emergency in Canada.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Hundreds of doctors, nurses and activists are calling on provincial governments to ensure immediate access to free health care for new arrivals in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott this week, the group OHIP For All says urgent action is needed in light of a looming public-health emergency in Canada.

“We are deeply concerned about these pre-existing barriers to health care for uninsured individuals in Canada, and the potential public health implications in the context of a pandemic,” the letter states. “As a group of health-care providers and community members, we call on all levels of government, health institutions, and public health leaders to act now to ensure care for everyone.”

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Typically, new arrivals in Canada have to wait at least three months to access provincial health coverage. The newcomers include Canadians returning from longer stretches abroad, recent immigrants, some temporary foreign workers and international students, and undocumented workers. In some cases, people who have lost identity documents may also have trouble getting coverage.

Definitive numbers are hard to come by, but estimates suggest a significant number of people in Canada are in a non-coverage situation, said Dr. Arnav Agarwal, an internal-medicine resident with the University of Toronto and core member of OHIP For All.

“The estimates would say something between 200,000 and 500,000, with more estimates on the upper end,” Dr. Agarwal said in an interview.

Ms. Elliott said the government was moving to scrap the wait period for returning Canadians only, but anyone needing health care would get it.

As of Thursday, Canada has seen more than 700 cases of COVID-19. Ten people have died, most of them in British Columbia. Ontario has recorded upwards of 250 cases and two deaths. Experts say the highly contagious virus poses little risk to most people. However, the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and the marginalized face a much higher risk.

OHIP For All’s main concern is that those in need of health services might stay away, be denied care or be forced to pay out of pocket and end up with large debts.

“We must recognize that people experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19 will seek care through community clinics and hospitals, and therefore these sites must also be free and accessible to all,” the group’s letter states.

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Society as a whole is at risk if everyone, regardless of immigration or other status, has no ready access to the health-care system, Dr. Agarwal said. “The health and well-being of our community as a whole relies on the well-being of every individual in it. When you recognize that this is such a substantial portion of our community, it makes it all the more important to ensure that they have access to testing as well as to the right supportive care.”

About 1,000 people and organizations have signed the letter urging coverage for the uninsured.

The letter calls on governments to ensure COVID-19 assessment centres have an explicit policy to be free and accessible to all, regardless of immigration status. It also wants similar unrestricted access to community clinics and hospitals.

The public, the groups says, must also be informed that assessment and care is available to everyone for free.

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