Tories accused of flip-flopping on refugee health policy

A notice of looming cuts to health services for refugees was mailed to 104,000 beneficiaries — including 14,000 the federal government now says won't lose their supplementary benefits — and opposition MPs say it shows Ottawa flip-flopped on a contentious policy change.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, shown at a press conference last week, says it was never the government's intention for government-assisted refugees to be included in changes to the refugee health program. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A notice of looming cuts to health services for refugees was mailed to more than 104,000 beneficiaries — including about 14,000 the federal government now says won't be stripped of their supplementary medical services — and opposition MPs say it shows the government has flip-flopped on a contentious policy change.

The notice from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, obtained by CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, was sent out to about 70,000 households in May. It was part of a package of documents released under the Access to Information Act from the Immigration and Refugee Board that also included emails and other correspondence on the potential impact of changes.

"The Interim Federal Health Plan has been reformed. As of June 30, 2012, benefits will be reduced for all current and future beneficiaries," the notice reads.

It goes on to say that "prescription drug benefits are being reduced for all beneficiaries," and that "vision care, dental care, devices to assist mobility, home care and long-term care will no longer be covered."

But now, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says government-sponsored refugees will be eligible for the full range of supplemental health benefits — raising questions about whether the government back-tracked on a policy that was lambasted by physicians across the country.

The government's website was amended late last week, but Kenney insisted the government was not reversing its policy, only clarifying it. He said it was always the government's intention to provide supplemental coverage to government-assisted refugees, and that reforms are primarily designed to target "bogus" refugee claimants.

On Power & Politics Thursday, Kenney's parliamentary secretary Rick Dykstra also denied the government is back-tracking.

"Absolutely not. It's a clarification," he told Solomon. "This was always intended to ensure that those who were sanctioned refugees from the UN, who came to this country as government-sponsored refugees, would indeed have interim health benefits. We now have clarified that."

'Demonizing refugees'

But NDP MP and finance critic Peggy Nash accused the government of making up policy on the fly that will have a serious impact on human lives.

"You're saying there are good refugees and bad refugees. And we don't know until they go through the process," she said. "You're demonizing people who are coming here seeking refugee status."

Liberal immigration critic Kevin Lamoureux said the minister has flip-flopped, but his changes don't go far enough.

Doctors have been protesting the reforms since they were announced in April — some of them interrupting press conferences by cabinet ministers on different topics. Amnesty International Canada also said last month that Canada may be in breach of international legal obligations by denying refugees health benefits.

"Failure to ensure proper and adequate treatment for these health needs at an early stage contravenes human rights requirements and may also give rise to greater public health demands at a later stage," the human rights watchdog warned.

The IFHP provided basic health coverage and the supplemental health benefits which included drugs, dentistry, vision care and mobility devices. The government said it was ending supplemental benefits so coverage was not more generous than what most Canadians receive through provincial health insurance.

Reforms are expected to save about $20 million annually. The cost of supplemental benefits to government-assisted refugees is about $2 million a year, according to Kenney's office.