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Cross-Border Health Care: Medical Trips Between the US and Canada

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This article provides information to Canadians about cross-border health care.

The use of cross-border health care is a routine occurrence in the US and in Canada. In search of health care that is either higher quality or more affordable, or to obtain services not locally available, Americans and Canadians frequently cross the border between the two countries. The health care systems in the two nations differ substantially, with the US having privatized health care, and these differences often create good reasons to seek cross-border health care insurance.

Common Reasons for Canadians to Seek US Care
Cross-Border Health CareRecent surveys indicate that fewer Canadians visit the US for health care today than have in the past; what’s more, fewer seek treatment there purposefully than is generally believed. This is likely because health care in the US is paid completely out of pocket for Canadians, who can have their treatment at home covered by their provincial health plan.

Still, to some Canadians it is worth the cost to head south. These are usually situations where the wait times for treatment in Canada are too long, or where the treatment needed is so specialized that it might not be readily available in Canada. Some Canadians also cross the border to avoid wait times in Canada. There are now services available to help Canadians locate and book the treatment they need in the US, which indicates that in spite of the surveys this activity occurs fairly frequently.

Medical Vacation Packages
Another phenomenon is medical tourism and medical vacation packages. This involves going to a resort destination that specializes in a type of medical procedure. For example someone might book a trip to Thailand for a hip replacement or to a Panama resort for cosmetic surgery. Often the prices are lower than getting a private treatment in Canada or the US even after the extra travel expenses.

Common Reasons for Americans to Seek Canadian Care
Cross-border health care goes both ways, and Americans also come north to take advantage of some items that are much more affordable in Canada. This is particularly true of prescription drugs. Americans without prescription drug coverage through their privatized health care come to Canada to purchase prescription drugs because they are generally much cheaper in Canada. The amount of money spent on drugs by US citizens in Canada is estimated to be in the range of $1 billion annually. Americans being treated for cancer have also been known to come to Canada to take advantage of legal medical marijuana, since it is not legal in most states.

Some Americans come to Canada in search of free health care; this is the result of some confusion regarding Canada’s health care system. Many Americans believe anyone can receive care in Canada for free. This is of course inaccurate but some Americans with poor or no coverage still go north in search of free treatment.

The Cost of Cross-Border Health Care
Most Canadians are aware of the cost of crossing the border to the US for health care, especially if they have actually done it. Canadians who cross the border voluntarily to seek health care will not be reimbursed from their provincial health plan, with the exception of some cases where the request for reimbursement is processed ahead of time.

Americans visiting Canada to take advantage of cheaper services in Canada may cost Canadians more than it does Americans; even when Americans pay for the services, they are not paying the taxes that every Canadian pays to have the service available in the first place.

In both cases, crossing the border in search of heath care may put a strain on the resources of each country.

Myths About Cross-Border Health Care
As noted, many Americans cross the border in search of cheap prescription drugs; in truth, while some drugs are in fact cheaper in Canada, many are not. There are also drugs which are not yet available in Canada, and often it is Canadians who look to the south to obtain them.

Though it is widely reported that many Canadians go south because of the wait times in Canada, statistics on wait times in most cases indicate that the wait is not as long as it seems. Americans may also face long waits to get into the best doctors and specialists.

And of course, it is not at all free for Americans to obtain care in Canada, a myth that remains pervasive throughout the country due to a lack of understanding of how universal health care works.

Cross-border health care is a phenomenon that is likely to continue in the future; what impact it will have on the health care systems in each nation is as yet hard to say. While both countries strive to improve health care and provide the best they can for their citizens, sometimes people choose to take matters into their own hands and find the care they need wherever it might be.


About the Author:
Adriana Stefania is a freelance writer for Canada Health Insurance. For more information on health insurance for Canadians please visit