Refugee health care temporarily restored in most categories

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says that starting Nov. 5, the federal government will temporarily restore most health-care coverage to refugee claimants pending the outcome of an appeal at the Federal Court, but some still won't have coverage for drugs.

Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers says Ottawa's temporary plan doesn't comply with court ruling

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says the federal government will comply with a Federal Court ruling until such time that an appeal is heard. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal government will temporarily restore health-care coverage to refugee claimants beginning Wednesday pending the outcome of an appeal at the Federal Court, but some still won't have coverage for drugs.

"We are doing this because the court has ordered us to do it. We respect that decision while not agreeing with it," Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said following question period on Tuesday.

The government had until the end of today to review a 2012 policy the Federal Court deemed unconstitutional, "cruel and unusual" last July.

The government had asked for a stay until an appeal is heard, but that request was rejected on Friday. A date for the appeal has not been set.

"Under the temporary measures, most beneficiaries are eligible to receive coverage for hospital, medical and laboratory services, including pre- and post-natal care as well as laboratory and diagnostic services," the government said in a notice posted on the website of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration over an hour after the minister spoke.

Children under 19 years of age will receive full coverage, while pregnant women will be covered for all but supplemental health benefits.

Supplemental benefits include "limited dental and vision care, prosthetics and devices to assist mobility, home care and long-term care, psychological counselling provided by a registered clinical psychologist, and post-arrival health assessments."

However, refugee claimants in seven of the 12 categories included in the government's chart will not be covered for drugs or supplemental health coverage.

Those who won't be covered for drugs or supplemental health benefits are:

  • Privately sponsored refugees who are not receiving support through the resettlement assistance program.
  • Protected persons.
  • Designated country of origin refugee claimants.
  • Non-designated country of origin refugee claimants.
  • Rejected refugee claimants without a deferral of removal for generalized risk.
  • Individuals who receive a positive decision on their pre-removal risk assessment.
  • Individuals with ineligible refugee claims but eligible to make a pre-removal risk assessment application.

Temporary plan 'punitive' and 'selective'

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, one of the groups that took the government to court over the changes the Conservatives brought in back in 2012, says the temporary plan does not comply with the Federal Court ruling.

"The government is still being punitive, they're being selective and the court told them to reinstate all benefits," said Peter Showler, co-chair of the refugee lawyers' group and a former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. He is also an expert in refugee law at the University of Ottawa.

Showler was critical of the government's decision to deprive certain refugee claimants of coverage for prescription medications. 

"They are not in compliance with the decision based on the information that the government put out on its website today."

Showler said he will discuss today's announcement with two other groups who challenged the government in court – the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and Justice for Children and Youth – but said it's likely their lawyers will go back to court and file a contempt motion asking the court to order full compliance.

NDP multiculturalism critic Andrew Cash was critical of the government's approach, saying it can't simply "pick and choose which refugees they're going to cover."

"It's certainly not the spirit of the court ruling," Cash said.

Liberal immigration critic John McCallum said the court ruling made no mention of restoring partial benefits to some and full benefits to others.

"The court ruling was a blanket order to restore the interim federal health-care program or something equivalent to it. There was no statement they could put some in, take some out, there was an order to restore the whole thing."

McCallum said the minister could risk being found in contempt of court if he tried to "weasel out" of compliance.

Alexander said the government would "comply" with the court ruling until such a time as an appeal is heard. He added that the temporary measures would cost the government $4 million to implement.