Ottawa

Ottawa doctors concerned how health care system will support new Syrian refugees

Dr. Alison Eyre helps ill and vulnerable refugee claimants navigate what she says is a disjointed health care system for refugees, and she worries about what the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees might do to an already fractured system.

Doctors question if Canada can handle new refugees under current system

Dr. Carol Geller, left, and Dr. Allison Eyre, right, help newcomers to Canada navigate the current health care system.
Dr. Alison Eyre, who helps ill and vulnerable refugee claimants navigate what she says is a disjointed health care system for refugees, is worried about what the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees might do to an already fractured system.

That refugee health care system changed in June 2012, when the federal government cut its Interim Federal Health Program, thereby denying some health benefits to certain refugee claimants. 

Eyre said many refugees were no longer able to get any medication, basic dental or eye care and some doctors and clinics refused to see refugees altogether.

"A certain amount of health care has been restored, but there still is confusion," said Eyre, a family doctor at the Centretown Community Health Centre and part of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care.

"Whenever there's confusion, it allows for things to fall through the cracks."

Last year, the federal court found the Conservative government cuts were "cruel and unusual" and ordered the coverage to be reinstated.

The government restored some benefits, but appealed the ruling and that case has now been adjourned until late December.

Meanwhile, some provincial ministries of health have filled some of the gaps, but Eyre said problems continue.

"What worries me more than the people who I see, are the people who I don't see. Because we used to see a lot more," said Eyre. "And I very much worry as we go forward with this very huge focus on the Syrian refugees, we still have refugees from a lot of countries that I worry they will get lost and where will they come into the system?"

System unprepared for newcomers

Eyre hopes the incoming Liberal government will restore federal health funding to all refugees and claimants as they have promised.

Dr. Carol Geller, Eyre's colleague at the health centre, said the current system is unprepared to deal with tens of thousands of newcomers, some of whom have experienced trauma, health and mental health problems in their war-torn countries.

"There's huge numbers of people who really don't know how to access health care, have no clue, use emergency rooms," said Geller. "So do I feel there's a need for a huge overhaul? Yes. Do I feel in the end it would serve everyone's needs better? Absolutely."

The Liberal promise is to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, but both Geller and Eyre said health care isn't the only part of the refugee support system that needs to be fixed before the Syrians can be welcomed.

Housing, employment and language services were also cut and they say, need to be restored.

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