Doctors, lawyers launch suit over refugee health care cuts

The lives of thousands of refugee claimants in Canada are being jeopardized by a federal government policy that is unconstitutional, says a group of doctors and lawyers taking Ottawa to court.

Federal Court case seeks judicial review of June decision to axe supplemental benefits

Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq was interrupted at this news conference last June by Dr. Megan Williams, who spoke out against the federal government's decision to cut supplementary health benefits for refugees. Doctors and lawyers launched a lawsuit Monday, calling the government's cutbacks unconstitutional. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The lives of thousands of refugee claimants in Canada are being jeopardized by a federal government policy that is unconstitutional, says a group of doctors and lawyers taking Ottawa to court.

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers launched a court challenge Monday, accusing the federal government of violating the charter and international obligations with its decision last year to change health-care coverage for refugee claimants.

Up until June 30, 2012, the federal government covered the costs of drugs and medical care for refugee claimants until they had been in Canada long enough for provincial coverage to kick in.

But the government put an end to almost all supplemental health-care benefits, slashing coverage in most cases to care only when it was a public health emergency.

The doctors and lawyers say the cuts deny basic, emergency and life-saving medical care to thousands of refugee claimants lawfully seeking protection here.

"The Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care has for months documented an escalating number of refugees being denied care," Dr. Philip Berger said Monday at a news conference to announce the court challenge.

"Pregnant women, children and refugees with chronic diseases are not showing up for appointments, even at clinics who would see them, (because) they're afraid of the costs."

Would-be refugees part of challenge

Three people affected by the cuts are also part of the court challenge, including Hanif Ayubi — a man from Afghanistan whose refugee claim was rejected.

Ayubi, who can not be sent home because there is a moratorium on removals to that country, now can't get insulin for his Type 1 diabetes.

He is being kept alive on free samples of insulin from a community medical clinic in Ottawa, the doctors say. He has a work permit and has been paying taxes, but does not earn enough to cover the cost of medication and tests.

The notice of application, filed Monday in Federal Court, alleges the policy violates several sections of the charter. It is cruel and unusual treatment, it puts the refugees' life and security of the person at risk and arbitrarily discriminates based on country of origin, the doctors allege.

The changes to refugee health coverage depend on whether the claimant comes from a list of countries that Ottawa has deemed safe and where it is less likely someone will be persecuted.

Refugee claimants from those countries, including Mexico and Hungary, have no coverage for medical services or medications except when there is a public health or public safety concern. Others still have most medical services covered, though the only medications that are covered for them are ones for conditions posing a threat to public health or safety.

It's a short-sighted approach, the doctors allege.

"The consequences of the lapse, denial or delay of urgent and essential health-care coverage...are that health problems go untreated until they become emergencies," the group says in its court notice.

"Hospitals must provide care at that time, but the costs of such care will ultimately be borne by the provincial health-care system and the Canadian taxpayer. Providing emergency care at a hospital is far more costly than providing insurance coverage for preventive care."

Citizenship and Immigration Canada has said it will provide a statement in response to the challenge.