Refugee advocates say health cuts having 'brutal' effects

Rallies were held across Canada today to protest cuts to refugee health care made a year ago that doctors say are having negative consequences not just for refugees but for all Canadians.

Day of action held Monday to protest cuts made one year ago

Demonstrators on Parliament Hill Monday call on the government to reverse cuts to refugee health care, a policy that was announced almost one year ago. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Health care providers and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney are accusing each other of misleading Canadians about cuts to refugee health care in an ongoing battle that began almost one year ago.

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and representatives of other medical groups held a rally and press conference on Parliament Hill on Monday and called on Kenney to reverse the cuts that were first announced June 30, 2012. The events were part of a national day of action with other rallies organized in more than a dozen cities.

Last year's changes to the interim federal health program reduced the amount of coverage for refugee claimants and limited doctor visits and diagnostic tests to "urgent" cases. Medications are covered only if they are for a disease that could pose a risk to public health. Certain refugees, however, such as government-assisted refugees, continue to get supplemental benefits.

Before the changes, all claimants were eligible for vision and dental care, for example, and could get medications covered. The interim federal health program was meant to act as a bridge while claims were being processed and until successful claimaints could get provincial health care coverage.

Medication for pregnant women, children

Dr. Doug Gruner said Kenney ignored concerns raised by his group and others a year ago and that he has refused to open a dialogue with the medical community.

"Now, one year later, we are seeing the brutal effects of this policy," he said at the news conference. He said children can't get medication for asthma and other conditions and pregnant women similarly can't get medication for high blood pressure, diabetes and other dangerous conditions.

"This is a bad policy. This is bad for the health of refugees, this is bad for the health of Canadians for our own public health and this is bad for the taxpayer. This will cost taxpayers dramatically more money," said Gruner.

He said someone who has a cough may not go to a doctor because they can't afford it, yet could have tuberculosis and are putting everyone else at risk. The reduced coverage program also means refugee claimants who can't see a doctor for symptoms may end up in an emergency room once they are seriously ill and that kind of care is much more costly.

"The immigration minister continues to mislead Canadians by saying this policy only affects illegal immigrants. That statement is false. This policy affects all refugee claimants," said Gruner. "He also misleads Canadians by saying that refugees get gold-plated health care. This, too, is false."

The NDP released a statement backing the call for the cuts to be reversed and it said the Conservatives are playing politics with people's lives.

But Kenney is standing firm and through a statement from his press secretary said it is the groups who are opposed to the policy who are spreading false information.

"These protesters and the Opposition are misleading Canadians in an irresponsible and shameful attempt to further their unreasonable demands that Canadian taxpayers foot the bill for gold-plated health care coverage for illegal immigrants and bogus asylum claimants that is better than what even Canadian seniors receive," Alexis Pavlich wrote in an email.

She said genuine refugees continue to get comprehensive health care that is the same or better than what most Canadians get through provincial plans.

"Our Conservative government will continue to stand up for hard-working, Canadian taxpayers by ensuring that our already strained health care system is no longer abused by illegal immigrants and bogus asylum claimants," she wrote.

The doctors say the federal government is simply downloading costs to the provinces and taxpayers will still end up paying in the end.

The group said it is trying to keep track of how many refugees are ending up in emergency rooms and how many have been turned away from walk-in clinics and is documenting specific cases where people can't get the help they need.


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitz_meagan