Refugee health wrong priority for provinces, Kenney says

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is defending the government's decision to cut health care for refugee claimaints, saying upset provinces should be more concerned about their own citizens.

Health care for 'illegal immigrants' should not be a focus, says minister

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says in some cases people are making refugee claims just to get free dental care. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says provinces upset about cuts to refugee health services should be more concerned about their own citizens than rejected claimants who are taking advantage of the system.

Kenney is fending off protests from the medical community and now some provinces over the Conservatives' decision to cut benefits under the interim federal health program.

As of tomorrow, Ottawa will no longer cover some prescription medications, dental and vision care, prevention and screening tests or other services considered supplemental to basic health care for refugee claimants.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews wrote a letter to Kenney and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq on Wednesday asking for the decision to be reversed.

Matthews said the decision was made without proper consultation and that it will result in a "class system for health care in Canada."

A concerned doctor asked Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq this week at a news conference about the changes to the refugee health system. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"By abdicating your responsibility towards some of the most vulnerable in our society, you have effectively downloaded federal costs onto the provincial health-care system," the letter reads.

Matthews said by leaving medical conditions unchecked or untreated it will lead to higher health-care costs down the road and the provinces will be left with the tab. She urged Kenney to make the "right choice" and reverse the decision, but the minister showed no signs of changing course.

He instead defended the decision and had some advice for the provinces.

"I think that perhaps the provinces, some of the provinces who are raising this, have put their priority in the wrong place. They should be more focused on their own citizens and residents than people who are, in many cases we're talking here about illegal immigrants — that is to say, rejected asylum claimants who are under removal orders from Canada," he said at a news conference held to highlight the government's immigration reform agenda.

"The real question is why were we providing them with tax-funded health insurance in the past? That's what Canadians have been asking us and that's why we've acted in this way," he said.

Provinces will save money

The changes apply to all refugee claimants, not only ones who have been rejected. Under the new system, medications will only be covered if they are needed to treat a disease that poses a risk to public safety. The services of doctors and nurses will only be covered if they are for urgent matters.

The government estimates that reducing the benefits will save about $100 million over the next five years.

Refugee advocates say vulnerable people who are already trying to escape hardship and find safety in Canada are going to be hurt by the move. Doctors held a protest on Parliament Hill last week and this week held a press conference promising to keep track of the effects of the changes.

Kenney says the idea is to ensure refugee claimants aren't getting more extended health coverage than most Canadians get through the public insurance system.

"I would just say to the provinces, with respect, I don't understand why they seem to more concerned about providing supplementary health benefits like dental care and eye care to, for example, rejected asylum claimants than they are to their own citizens," the minister said.

He rejected Matthews' position that costs are being downloaded and said in fact the changes to the refugee system will save the provinces money. The government is promising to deport rejected claimants faster, and Kenney said those people won't be claiming welfare at the provinces' expense for as long.

He said there were no formal public consultations before the decision, but that the government repeatedly heard from Canadians who said refugee claimants, especially rejected ones, shouldn't get better health care than taxpayers.

Kenney said there have been multiple cases where people from European Union countries make a refugee claim in Canada, get free dental care for the children and then withdraw their claim. He said it makes no sense to enable that kind of abuse of the system.