Minister stands by denying health coverage to failed refugees

The federal government is standing by a decision to stop paying for most health-care services for failed refugee claimants, including a Mexican woman in Alberta whose cancer was misdiagnosed.

"They're not here illegally,' says doctor who has a launched a legal challenge

Despite mounting pressure, Canada's federal immigration minister is refusing to change his mind about cutting health care for failed refugee claimants. 2:37

The federal government is standing by a decision to stop paying for most health-care services for failed refugee claimants.

The Catholic Health Alliance of Canada called on Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to reverse the policy in a letter dated March 8.

Kenney was unavailable for a comment Monday, but a statement from his office makes it clear there will be no change.

"Canadians have been clear that they do not want illegal immigrants and asylum seekers with unfounded refugee claims receiving free, gold-plated health-care benefits that are better than those that hard-working Canadian taxpayers and seniors receive," the statement read. "Our government has listened and acted."

But Fariborz Birjandian, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, says a better way for the government to save money would be to speed up the refugee process.

"Expedite the whole process so people who are not eligible to be in Canada, should not be in Canada then," he said. "But if they are here, we should provide them the basic right to access social services, including health."

Dr. Philip Berger, who is also involved in a legal challenge on the issue, says the government has an obligation to care for people even if their refugee claim has been denied.

"So called unsuccessful or failed refugee claimants still have — under Canadian law — a right to appeal, and in that case should be receiving health insurance because they're not here illegally," he said. "They're under the domain and responsiblity of the federal government."

Medical students in a dozen cities across the country are planning a day of action on the issue next month. According to the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, about 1,000 refugee claimants come to Alberta every year.

Mexican woman, who pays taxes, affected by change

Maria Morales is just one of many people affected by the change. She applied for Canadian refugee status in 2009 with her partner Ivan Nava after settling in Okotoks, south of Calgary, and finding jobs. They came to Canada to escape violence in Mexico.

After a sudden illness, she was diagnosed with fibroids, which are non-cancerous tumours. But six months later, during a hysterectomy, doctors discovered she had Stage 4 cancer, much of it inoperable.

But the government cut off failed refugees from anything other than emergency life-threatening care or care for illnesses that pose a public health risk, such as tuberculosis.

Although they didn't know it at the time, Morales and Nava were considered failed refugees.

Their claims were deemed "abandoned" because when they moved houses, as they had registered a new address with Citizenship and Immigration Canada but not with the refugee board.

It isn't known whether their claims would have passed, but the federal government is no longer providing most health care to the couple, including Morales's chemotherapy.

Morales and Nava still pay taxes, said their lawyer Raj Sharma.

However, Morales is still receiving life-prolonging chemotherapy treatments from Alberta Health Services — but only because she was misdiagnosed, said lawyer Jeff Poole.

She and Nava have applied for permanent residency in Canada, this time based on humanitarian grounds because of her aggressive cancer.

Catholic Health Alliance of Canada letter: