Slight reversal in federal refugee health cuts ‘too little too late,’ say doctors

Published in the Tyee | July 3, 2012 | Circulation: 200,000 unique monthly visitors

Doctors and health care workers across the country today said a slight reversal in cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) — only for refugees the government itself sponsored — is “too little and too late.”

The IFHP cuts enacted on Canada Day revoked health coverage of thousands of asylum-seekers, including critical medications, eye care and coverage for illnesses not deemed a “public safety risk,” as Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) declared that refugees should not get supplemental coverage unavailable to Canadians such as dental work and mobility aids.

Activists declared a partial victory after CIC changed a section of its website on Friday to indicate that Government Assisted Refugees — those resettled from refugee camps with government sponsorship — will still be entitled to supplemental benefits that critics say are not luxuries, like cases such as diabetes and pregnancy which are matters of life-and-death. CIC confirmed the change, but described it as simply a “clarification” of policy.

“Such a reversal indicates that the government acknowledges the need for access to medications, prosthetics, emergency dental and vision services and other essential health services for refugees,” the group Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care (CDRC) said in a statement. “The federal government has finally agreed with health care workers, as a matter of equity, that refugees deserve the same health coverage as other low income Canadians — no more, no less.

“Despite this reversal, many other refugees will still be denied access to basic health services… Many other refugees will suffer because of the cuts that are still in place. Doctors and other health care workers expect that the government will rescind its plan to cut health care coverage for all refugees.”

CIC insisted it is not “backtracking” on its controversial legislation, whichspurred health workers to protest in 14 Canadian cities on June 18 — many in their white coats, stethoscopes and hospital scrubs — following an unprecedented doctors’ sit-in of MP Joe Oliver’s Toronto office on May 11.

“Our intention was to ensure that those who come to Canada as asylum seekers from abroad do not receive better health care coverage than Canadians,” Alexis Pavlich, spokesperson for CIC Minister Jason Kenney, told The Tyee. “Our intention was never to have this policy impact government-sponsored refugees who have been living in UN refugee camps, who arrive in Canada as permanent residents, but who do not initially qualify for provincial social support.

“The original criteria did not make this intention clear which is why the language of the policy has been modified.”

Pavlich criticized opposition parties for politicizing reforms that represent “sensible changes” to a system that she said allows “even bogus asylum seekers better health care coverage than is available to Canadians taxpayers, including seniors.” She emphasized that only two per cent of claimants will benefit from the recent reversal of cuts.


”The vast majority of those affected by our reforms will be pending and rejected asylum claimants,” she added in an email. “As a result of our improvements, bogus refugee claimants living as illegal immigrants and refusing to leave Canada no longer have access to our generous health care system, as they should no longer be in Canada.”

In an earlier interview with The Tyee, the president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) said that CIC’s claim that refugees get better care than citizens is a red herring, and that protests by his organization, as well as pharmacists, surgeons, nurses and other health groups, is critical to forcing the government to back down on its cuts.

“By raising the profile of these issues, it makes it harder for the political machine to squiggle away and wriggle out,” CMA’s Dr. John Haggie said.

“We wondered why they didn’t spend some effort trying to give that comprehensive coverage to all Canadians, rather than taking it away from the few who really didn’t have any other options,” he added. “I’d suggest we ought to remedy the deficiencies in Canada’s health care system, rather than start a race for the bottom by trying to cut costs.

“If this produces a barrier to access to care, then these refugees, when they do seek treatment, are going to be sicker. By and large, sicker patients are more expensive. Not only will provinces get hit with the initial expense, but they’ll probably get expensive bills for conditions that could have been managed a lot earlier.”

 
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