All refugee health care benefits will be fully restored to pre-2012 levels by April 1, Canada's Liberal government announced Thursday.

Refugees from any country of origin will be covered once again, following several years of confusion and patchwork solutions after the previous Conservative government scaled back the interim federal health program in an effort to save an estimated $20 million annually.

In addition, Immigration Minister John McCallum and Health Minister Jane Philpott announced Thursday that starting April 1, 2017, additional coverage would be offered to refugees before their departure for Canada, to cover:

  • Medical examinations required for immigration.
  • Vaccinations.
  • Treatment of disease outbreaks in refugee camps.
  • Medical support during travel to Canada.

"It is the right thing to do," McCallum told reporters in Ottawa, saying the changes would not only improve the health of refugees, but they would also help protect the health of all Canadians.

Reinstating federal coverage also lowers costs for provinces and territories.

Refugees unable to access routine medical services were ending up in hospital emergency rooms, often with conditions that would have been far less serious and less expensive to treat if they were caught and managed proactively earlier.

Refugees who need prescription drugs, vision care and urgent dental care will now have coverage similar to what provinces and territories provide to Canadians on social assistance. 

McCallum said the changes would be covered within the $51 million already allocated for the interim federal health program in the current budget framework.

Restoring health care for all refugees is estimated to cost $5.9 million annually. Extending the pre-departure services next year could cost $5.6 million annually.

Appeal dropped last year

As part of its efforts to assist a large, new wave of Syrian refugees to Canada, the federal government announced last December it had dropped an appeal of a Federal Court case over changes to the interim federal health program for refugees.

The court ordered that benefits cut by Stephen Harper's Conservative government in 2012 be reinstated. Those cuts applied to failed refugee claimants and those still in Canada waiting for their appeals to be heard.

McCallum said the government had no choice but to act after the court ruled that the cuts were inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Cabinet had already lifted the restrictions to provide coverage for privately sponsored and government-assisted Syrian refugees. In a few weeks, all will be covered, regardless of their country of origin.

Liberal government restores refugee health care program10:09

Philpott said Thursday the cuts placed an administrative burden on health care providers, some of whom faced the choice of either denying service to some refugees or providing those services without billing, something the health minister praised as "generous" and "heroic."

One of her messages, Philpott said, was one of thanks to those professionals who continued to provide care voluntarily.

Six different types of coverage had been in place for different refugees since November 2014.

Things now return to a system with "one path" for refugee health care, the minister said, simplifying everything again after things had disintegrated into an "enormous complexity" that became "almost unmanageable."

"Any savings suggested by the previous federal government were false savings," Philpott said.

Eases burden on refugee sponsors

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins issued a statement congratulating the federal government.

"Providing these services is not only fair, it saves our health-care system money in the long term by cutting down on costly emergency visits," he said.

Hoskins noted that because of the cuts, Ontario had to create a temporary health program to meet Ontario's "humanitarian obligations." That has cost the province $2 million since January, 2014.

The group Citizens for Public Justice also issued a statement welcoming the move, citing a study on private refugee sponsorship in which it found that approximately one-third of church-connected sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) reported their sponsoring groups decreased or ended their involvement out of fear for added liability for health costs.

According to the study, 72 per cent of SAHs in Canada are churches or church-connected groups. The cuts meant private sponsors had to cover vision and dental care, prosthetics, mobility devices, and medication.

"This is a huge financial risk for refugee-sponsoring churches," said executive director Joe Gunn, adding that Thursday's announcement answers his group's call to recognize the hard work and sacrifice sponsorship groups put into helping refugees.

The interim federal health program covers:

  • resettled refugees.
  • other protected persons.
  • asylum claimants.
  • rejected claimants.
  • immigration detainees.
  • victims of human trafficking.
  • other groups identified by the minister, such as Haitians in Canada temporarily after the 2010 earthquake.

Coverage ends when recipients become eligible for provincial or territorial insurance, or leave Canada. Supplemental coverage may continue to cover costs like prescription drugs while the refugees receive assistance from the government or private sponsors (usually one year.)