An Ottawa doctor worries planned changes to Canada's federal health program for refugees could leave many seeking emergency care if the provinces don't step up to the plate.

The following services to refugees fleeing unsafe countries will only be provided if they are of an "urgent or essential nature:"

  • Hospital services.
  • Services of a doctor or registered nurse.
  • Laboratory, diagnostic and ambulance services.
  • Medications and vaccines only when needed to prevent or treat a disease posing a risk to public health or a condition of public safety concern.

(Source: CIC)

Mark Tyndall, head of infectious diseases at the Ottawa Hospital, was reacting to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's announcement last week that the government will make changes to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), effective June 30, as part of the 2012 budget cuts.

The program gives basic health-care coverage to protected persons, refugee claimants and others who do not qualify for provincial or territorial coverage.

Tyndall told CBC News the changes will likely mean treatment for diabetes, high-blood pressure and HIV will not be covered federally because of the way the changes will be interpreted.

Tyndall added that the move cuts off coverage to a vulnerable group.

"By definition we're dealing with a population that has a lot of health issues," said Tyndall. "Whether it's hypertension, diabetes, cancers, a lot of illnesses are higher in refugee populations and up until now, there have been no questions asked. It's unclear if any of these things would be covered."

More hospitalized patients

Under the changes, funding to supplemental health services such as medications, dentistry, vision care and mobility devices will be cut.

Coverage for other basic medical services such as hospital, doctor or nursing care will also be cut unless the need is "of an urgent or essential nature."

Tyndall said such illnesses are preventable and do not need hospitalization, but the federal move might result in a rise in the number of patients needing care in Canadian hospitals.

"From a purely economical standpoint, it seems like a policy that hasn't been well thought out," he said.

The Canadian Council for Refugees also worries the new policy will shift the cost of care to the provinces if refugees are billed for services and unable to pay. The council added that doctors in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto have all expressed concern.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) said in a statement Wednesday the purpose of the Interim Federal Health Program is to provide limited and temporary coverage of health benefits to protected persons, refugee claimants and other specified groups not eligible for provincial or territorial health insurance.

"[CIC] is committed to ensuring that IFHP beneficiaries do not receive benefits that are more generous than what Canadians receive through government-funded benefit programs and that the benefits provided through the program continue to protect public health and safety," said spokeswoman Nancy Caron in an email.