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Ontario funds refugee healthcare in wake of federal cuts

The Ontario government announced Monday it will bring in a new program to cover healthcare for new immigrants, making up for a controversial federal funding cut that was made in 2012.

Hamilton doctor calls province's move: 'the compassionate thing to do'

Protesters marked the one-year anniversary of controversial cuts to refugee healthcare in Ottawa this summer. Today, the Ontario government announced it will fund the services cut by the federal government. (Fred Chartrant/Canadian Press)

The Ontario government announced Monday it will bring in a new program to cover healthcare for new immigrants, making up for a controversial federal funding cut that was made in 2012.

The Ontario Temporary Health Program will provide medical care to new refugee claimants, as well as rejected refugee claimants living in the province until their deportation date. Unlike the federal program, it will provide care to refugee claimants from any country. Five other provinces — including Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia — have implemented similar programs.

Ontario will continue to lobby the federal government to fully reinstate the Interim Federal Health Program, and it will try to recover the money it spends on new immigrants' healthcare. 

"We will send the federal government the bill to pay back what they owe," said Health Minister Deb Matthews in a news release.

Saskatchewan, another province to fund refugee health care in the wake of the federal cuts, has billed the federal government but received nothing back. 

Doctors who work with refugees were pleased with the news. Dr. Tim O'Shea, a specialist in internal medicine and infectious disease at McMaster who has been an outspoken critic against the federal government cut called Ontario's move "a huge deal."

"I think it's a step in the right direction … after a lot of backlash and struggle around this issue, it's good to see the Ontario government do the right thing," O'Shea said. 

Until 2012, refugee claimants were eligible for vision and dental care, and they could get the cost of medications covered as their claim was processed. But after the cuts, which the federal government said were meant to block failed refugee claimants from abusing the system and racking up healthcare costs, O'Shea said he's treated immigrant patients who have had to ration their medication, or have to choose between food or medicine. 

O'Shea estimates the new program could cost Ontario around $10 million a year, but he said treating refugees for basic illnesses will hopefully cut down on expensive emergency room visits. 

Apart from that, "it's the compassionate thing to do," he said. 

Ontario's new program is set to start on Jan. 1, 2014.

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