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Migration & Refugees

Canada Severely Curtails Refugee Health Care

MONTREAL, Jul 3 2012 (IPS) - As major cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) came into effect across Canada last week, medical professionals say both refugees and the Canadian healthcare system as a whole will pay a heavy price.

“(This is a) government document that we can read that explicitly says we are denying patients with chronic conditions and acute illnesses medications and in many cases, any treatment at all. (It’s) unheard of,” said Dr. Philip Berger, chief of family medicine at St-Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and a member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, a grassroots group of healthcare professionals that has come out against the cuts.

“It’s one of those rare, exceptional circumstances in life where there is no room for compromise. Doctors cannot distinguish (between) patients who need healthcare on the basis of their refugee category,” Berger told IPS.

IFHP provides limited health coverage to approximately 128,000 protected persons, including resettled refugees, refugee claimants and other groups who are not eligible for provincial health insurance.

The cuts will result in most refugees in Canada receiving healthcare coverage only in urgent or essential cases, or if it is a threat to public health and safety. Refugees will lose access to primary healthcare services and medications, and preventative care.

Refugee claimants from designated countries of origin – countries which the Canadian government feels shouldn’t be producing refugees – will no longer receive emergency medical coverage, be treated during pregnancies or receive care for children’s illnesses.

“People will not seek care for routine, preventative medicine. (For example), the government will not pay for any medications required to treat angina, which means the heart disease goes out of control and people will end up in emergency departments with heart attacks instead,” Berger said.

Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has defended the cuts, arguing they will save the country 100 million dollars over five years.

“Their own citizens, including seniors on fixed incomes, don’t get these supplemental benefits. So why should (the provinces) be forced to pay for them through their taxes for, for example, rejected asylum claimants?” Kenney told a news conference on Jun. 29, as reported by the Canadian Press.

“They should be more focused on their own citizens and residents than people who, in many cases we’re here talking about, (are) effectively illegal immigrants,” Kenney continued.

According to Dr. Jane Moloney, executive director of the North End Community Health Centre in Halifax, and chair of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centers, contrary to the government’s arguments, the cuts to refugee healthcare will place an additional financial burden on the provinces, on healthcare providers, and on virtually all Canadian taxpayers.

“You do not save money by refusing to treat people when you have an opportunity to keep them healthy. That doesn’t save money. All that does is it makes them a lot sicker and makes it much, much more expensive to treat them when they do access the healthcare system,” Moloney told IPS.

“The impact of these cuts is really going to hit at a local level because these people still need care and they still need medications and they still need to be kept healthy,” she said.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews wrote a letter to Kenney and Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, condemning the federal government as “abdicating (its) responsibility towards some of the most vulnerable in our society” and creating “a class system for health care in Canada.”

In Quebec, the provincial government has said it will temporarily cover the costs to finance medical services for refugees that will no longer be covered by IFHP. According to the Quebec Health Ministry, this will cost the province five million dollars.

“We are relieved the Government of Quebec has stepped in to temporarily cover the cost of treating these very vulnerable patient populations, but we are still demanding that the Federal Government reverse its position on this issue,” said Dr. Micheline Ste-Marie, of the Montreal Children’s Hospital, in a press release.

“As a society, we cannot abandon these patients, a sick child is a sick child whether they are full-blown Canadians or refugees,” Ste-Marie said.

The Canadian Medical Association has come out against the cuts, and thousands of physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals and students protested in over a dozen major Canadian cities on Jun. 18, demanding that the government reinstate refugee healthcare coverage.

Letter writing campaigns – including one that garnered over 800 signatures at the Montreal Children’s Hospital – and other pressure tactics are also ongoing.

According to Dr. Moloney, all Canadians should be concerned by the cuts to refugee healthcare, since they signal the potential denial of healthcare for other marginalised groups across the country.

“What is the solution? Is this government going to extend healthcare coverage to those who are on low incomes or are they going to start removing it from everybody unless you’ve got the opportunity to pay for it yourself?” she said.

“Canadians are very proud of the fact that they have a free healthcare service and that we take care of those who are less able to afford healthcare coverage and insurance. That to me is the slippery slope that we’re on. If we’re starting to remove benefits and access to care for those who are most marginalised, most vulnerable and most in need of those supports, then it’s a very frightening prospect because who comes next?”

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