Health card catch-22 stymies Ottawa handyman

An Ottawa man who has spent the past five years trying to get his old-style Ontario health insurance card updated has been told he needs proof he was denied coverage to begin the process.

But a face-to-face meeting with Service Ontario to potentially get that proof is precisely what Jorg Santowski says he’s been denied.

A Canadian citizen and an Ontario resident for more than 50 years, Santowski says he’s visited eight different Service Ontario outlets, appealed to his MPP and even retained a lawyer.

But Santowski, who makes his living offering handyman services and says he can fix “almost anything,” has discovered he cannot fix the situation caused by the broken, faded, red and white Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) card in his wallet.

“I was young and invincible,” said Santowski, explaining why he put off renewing his card until he had a health scare a few years ago.

“Nobody seems to want to deviate away from what that computer tells them,” he said last week. “Policy seems to overrule compassion or common sense.

From Germany to gridlock

Perhaps it’s fair to say Santowski’s problems began in Minden, Germany, where he was born in the late 1960s.

His parents left Germany in 1967 when he was just a toddler. Growing up in Ottawa, Santowski’s mother kept a jar on the counter that demanded a payment each time English words slipped out in the family home.

Now almost 60, Santowski has lost his German, but not his German birth certificate.

And without a Canadian birth certificate, and his only approved photo ID an Ontario driver’s licence, he hasn’t been able to update his OHIP card.

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Three separate identification documents are needed to replace a red and white OHIP card with the new version:

  • An original document proving Canadian citizenship or OHIP-eligible immigration status.
  • An original, printed or digital/electronic document proving residence in Ontario.
  • An original document confirming one’s identity.

“I’ve gone into every Service Ontario outlet hoping to find somebody who will actually listen to me,” said Santowski.

Santowski says when he’s visited Service Ontario, he’s been told over and over again the renewal needs to be done online. 

The one time he’s been able to secure a face-to-face meeting — one that happened before he learned he needed proof of refusal — he drove all the way on their suggestion to provincial Ministry of Health administrative offices in Kingston, Ont., to make a personal appeal.

There, Santowski said, a security guard stopped him at the building’s front doors.

His MPP tried to get him an Ontario Photo Card, normally given to Ontarians who don’t have a driver’s licence. But because he already has one, he was ineligible.

Santowski’s OHIP card, photoedited by CBC News for privacy, shows years of wallet wear (Stu Mills/CBC)

Paperwork predicament

The status of those old OHIP cards is as fuzzy as the writing on Santowski’s battered ID.

In January 2020, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives announced that by Canada Day of that year, the remaining 300,000 red and white cards then still in circulation would become invalid.

“The advanced security features of the photo health card help protect our public health system and is another measure to improve value for taxpayers’ dollars,” said Christine Elliott, then the deputy premier and minister of health.

Santowski’s doctor will treat him, but charges a $40 fee each visit, for which Santowski hasn’t yet sought reimbursement.

Last week, a health ministry spokesperson told CBC News that “the red and white health card continues to be accepted for insured health services as long as it is valid and belongs to the individual presenting it.”

The spokesperson added that people who aren’t able to renew their card at a Service Ontario outlet can apply in writing to the OHIP Eligibility Review Committee (OERC).

The OERC option, Santowski said, was the first time anyone at the ministry had suggested a potential solution in five years he’s needed a new card.

But when he reached out, the OERC replied that that they would actually need evidence that Santowski had been “assessed by Service Ontario and denied” eligibility for OHIP.

“Should there be any difficulty with the above requirements … please reply with an explanation so that the OERC may respond or action accordingly,” the committee wrote in an email to Santowski.

That response left Santowski gobsmacked and facing a catch-22.

“I’ve been doing this all wrong. Instead of asking how do I get a health card, I now have to ask how do I get denied for a health card and who’ll be willing to put that on paper,” he wrote in his own email to CBC.

“These guys are trying to determine if they have to work, and not focusing on how to help.”

Jorg Santowski has lived in Ontario since 1967 and in this house in Ottawa's Orleans suburb for the past 12 years.
Jorg Santowski has lived in Ontario since 1967 and in this house in Ottawa’s Orléans suburb since 2012. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Familiar story

Santowski’s story is reminiscent of one reported by CBC News in 2012, when a 96-year-old Ottawa woman who lost her OHIP card encountered endless obstacles along the way to replacing it.

Elizabeth Stead had given up her driver’s licence in the 1950s and had no proof of residence.

She learned her marriage licence, citizenship papers and expired passport were not acceptable forms of identification to help her replace her lost health card.

Stead’s son said the family eventually received a letter from Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care authorizing Service Ontario to issue her a new card.

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