July 24, 2024

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Federal union files human rights complaints over health insurance woes

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As federal employees living and travelling abroad continue to face issues accessing their health insurance, a federal union representing foreign service officers has filed a pair of human rights complaints.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO), which represents more than 2,000 current and retired Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada employees, announced in a news release Thursday that it had launched complaints against the federal government as well as MSH International, a company subcontracted by Canada Life to deliver health insurance to plan members who are abroad.

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The union’s president, Pamela Isfeld, said in an interview that while there seem to be fewer problems with members submitting new claims, there are employees who have been waiting on outstanding claims for a year.

“They’re living with that uncertainty,” Isfeld said, adding that some members have gotten advances from Global Affairs. “I’m extremely disappointed that it’s come to this.”

MSH International began administering coverage to public servants and their dependants travelling and living abroad last July. The administration of the Public Service Health Care Plan for more than 1.7 million public servants, retirees and dependants transferred to Canada Life from Sun Life Financial Inc. following a multi-year tendering process.

This newspaper has heard from members of the Public Service Health Care Plan living abroad who have waited for thousands of dollars worth of claim reimbursements and have struggled to reach customer support, spending several hours on hold.

“We empathize with those impacted by service issues caused in part by factors unique to the federal government plan and outside of our control,” said Tim Oracheski, vice president of communications with Canada Life. A company executive apologized during a House of Commons committee meeting in December to all members who have had a poor service experience. “Our focus is on care for plan members, which is why we’ve been working closely with the government and MSH to resolve issues and we expect MSH to meet service level standards later this summer.”

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In an emailed response, Jina Park, director of program delivery for MSH said: “We take very seriously the concerns expressed by plan members and empathize with those impacted by the challenges caused in part by factors beyond our control. We are committed to improving our services for plan members. To this end, we have been working very closely with the government and Canada Life, and we expect to meet service level standards in the coming weeks.”

Martin Potvin, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, said the government is aware of the human rights complaint and shares the concerns of members posted abroad experiencing long wait times to reach an MSH agent or to receive timely reimbursements of their claims.

Potvin said Canada Life and MSH have been working together to address the issues, with a plan to hire more staff and add telephone options to correctly route callers.

“The Government of Canada and Canada Life are focused on resolving the remaining challenges experienced by members,” Potvin said.

According to the MSH Service Dashboard, which is updated every Thursday, the average wait time to reach the call centre is 1.8 minutes for emergency travel assistance and 3.3 minutes for comprehensive coverage.

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It said the average claims processing time is 53 days for emergency travel assistance and 38 days for comprehensive coverage.

Isfeld highlighted that the current statistics are “still double what it’s supposed to be” and wondered how much longer people are supposed to wait until the system functions properly.

“We are currently experiencing extremely high call and claim volumes and thank you for your patience as we work hard to reduce wait times,” the website says, noting that the company is hiring more call agents and claims processors. “We know your member experience has not met the expected level of service for which we strive.”

PAFSO’s human rights complaints follow a policy grievance it made to the Treasury Board of Canada in April for allegedly violating the collective agreement by implementing the transition of the plan “without due regard for the rights of all members to a functioning health care plan” and “in a manner that has caused adverse impacts.” The grievance asked that the government compensate members for “all harms experienced.”

It also follows a similar grievance filed by the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

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According to PAFSO, while serving abroad, foreign service officers and their families have to rely on the government plan as they don’t have access to provincial healthcare plans.

Isfeld said it was important to make these complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission given that some members have “suffered real harms,” especially those with disabilities and families.

“I’ve done postings myself, including twice in Afghanistan and it’s never occurred to me that we wouldn’t be looked after if anything happened,” Isfeld said, adding that she hopes this process will hold the government and the company to account and lead to some compensation for members. “It’s important that they’re held accountable for the whole range of issues that this causes, they have an obligation to do right by people.”

“We’re doing our best, really, to make sure that this is not another Phoenix.”

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