Questions remain over massive medical bills hanging over some families in southwestern Manitoba, even after the provincial government agreed to cover the costs of one man.
On Thursday, Manitoba’s Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced in the Legislature that Robin Milne’s medical bills had been covered.
He had been slapped with several bills amounting to $118,000 after he suffered a heart attack at his Sprague home in October.
As part of a long standing agreement, Milne was rushed to the nearest hospital, which was in Roseau, Minnesota. When an air ambulance flight to St. Boniface Hospital was not available, Milne’s doctor made the call to send him to Grand Forks, North Dakota for emergency surgery.
The agreement is between the province and Altru Medical in Minnesota, but only includes a pair of hospitals in Minnesota and none in North Dakota.
Since Global News and 680 CJOB broke the news of Milne’s struggle, others have come forward with similar stories.
Verna Kittleson and her husband are from Sprague and have had to mortgage their home to pay a $100,000 bill after she suffered heart failure in 2015.
“It’s not right,” Kittleson said in an interview with 680 CJOB.
Kittleson had gone to Roseau in August 2015 for a test and that afternoon her doctor told her to be at a Grand Forks hospital the next day for emergency surgery.
About a month later, Kittleson was told to go back to Grand Forks as her health started to deteriorate. She spent two weeks in a hospital there.
“Manitoba Health phoned and told (the hospital) that they would not pay for my bill,” Kittleson said. “I thought there had to be a mistake.”
Kittleson said the bills started arriving in February 2016. She owed $69,415 (USD).
“I thought why did they fix your heart and then put you through this,” an emotional Kittleson said. “We’ve mortgaged our home because we feel honourable – they saved my life.”
She said the hospital agreed to reduce her bill by 30 per cent and her and husband ended up paying close to $80,000 CAD.
“We basically panicked and went to Grand Forks,” Kittleson said when asked why she didn’t choose to go to Winnipeg for treatment. “When you find out you’re going to have to have heart surgery, you just go – that was the doctor, I was listening to his advice.”
While the medical bills have been paid off, Kittleson and her husband are now stuck paying off another mortgage.
She said she worries about retirement.
“I said to my husband ‘I just hope we both live long enough to pay it off’ because I don’t want to leave one or the other stranded,” Kittleson said.
She also worries about having to make another emergency medical trip to Roseau and then being sent onto Grand Forks again.
LISTEN: Geoff Currier speaks with Verna Kittleson
Province reviewing Altru Agreement
Goertzen said he met with representatives from Altru Agreement and Life Care in Roseau to discuss the agreement and “whether it’s being applied for what it’s been intended to do.”
The Altru Agreement, between the U.S. and the province, allows some Manitobans to receive medical attention south of the border. Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the agreement is now out of date.
Goertzen said the agreement is just three pages long and needs to be overhauled. However, that will take time. He is also seeking input from residents who are affected by it.