A man from Enderby, B.C., recently diagnosed with colon cancer is facing mounting hospital bills after previously opting out of the province's Medical Services Plan (MSP).
Benjamin Fuller, 43, opted out of B.C.'s health insurance five years ago in an effort to lower his bills, according to his wife, Kristina Fuller.
Benjamin, who is originally from Saskatchewan, was trying to save the cost of monthly MSP premiums, which were ultimately eliminated by the B.C. NDP government at the beginning of 2020.
"He opted out when he realized there was a process for it, and he thought, oh, this is great, why would I pay an additional medical premium for services that I probably won't need. I'll just rely on the, I guess, regular Canadian health care," Kristina said.
"He thought the $35 was just additional services and not going to impact his regular services."
Enrolling in the MSP program is mandatory in B.C. under the Medicare Protection Act, but there is an option to opt out for 12 months at a time — with a caveat.
"Residents who opt out are responsible for the payment of all medical, hospital and other health-care services received during the 12-month opt-out period," according to the B.C. government website.
"You will not be able to opt back in, in the event of an unforeseen medical problem."
In line with his opt-out date, the soonest Benjamin can opt back in to the provincial plan is July 1 of this year.
In December 2019, Benjamin became ill.
"He was sort of having tummy trouble I want to say, and he thought, oh, maybe it's a food sensitivity or maybe it's at worst an allergy," said Kristina.
He to see a doctor and was sent for several tests.
"On Feb. 26, the GP let us know that it wasn't an ulcer, it wasn't gallstones. He said, I have actually really terrible news, it's Stage 4 cancer in your colon," said Kristina.
Benjamin was diagnosed with aggressive colon cancer metastatic throughout the abdomen and liver.
According to his oncologist, his condition is incurable, so palliative chemotherapy was prescribed to extend his life.
The burden of treatment
Three months after the diagnosis, the Fullers have accumulated more than $22,000 in medical bills for hospital visits, tests and prescriptions.
Kristina says the costs have become such a burden that her husband is avoiding treatment to cut costs.
"I've overheard my husband ask questions on the phone to our doctor: oh, do I really need that scan?" she said.
"He's trying to tough it out so that we don't have an additional burden to bear, and that is very hard on my heart."
"Even when we started, Ben had said to the oncologist, you know, there's this situation with my MSP, maybe I should wait until July 1 before we do any treatments [...] and the oncologist said, no, if you wait until July you will not be alive," Kristina added.
"He said, that's not how it works in Canada. We will start treating you and somehow that other stuff will work out."
Hard line from ministry
Both out of work due to Benjamin's illness and the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple reached out in desperation to the Ministry of Health and offered to pay back the missed premiums over the past year in return for enrolment in MSP.
The Fullers feel that everyone should have been re-enrolled in MSP when premiums were eliminated on Jan. 1.
"I was hopeful, and I thought, well, it went to zero, everybody should just be rolled back in," said Kristina.
Their hospital social worker and Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo both wrote letters to the ministry asking for Benjamin's reinstatement in MSP.
They received one response stating Benjamin would not be eligible to re-enrol until July 1. It noted that while the response was disappointing, the legislation must be administered equitably to all residents of B.C.
According to the Ministry of Health, 206 people opted out of MSP in 2019.
The ministry insists there is no ability for an individual to opt back into the program before the end of the 12-month period.
Meanwhile, Kristina says Benjamin is in the middle of his second round of chemotherapy, and he is still experiencing stomach pain.
She says while Benjamin's prognosis is grim, she is hopeful he will recover.
"Doctors have talked to us a lot about his mindset: if you think you're going to live for 10 years then that's going to help you along," Kristina said.
"There have been different things written in the doctor's reports, saying two or three years, but we are not focused on that. We're focused on the positive and, hopefully, longer life. I'm hoping for 25 more years."