Reinstate Refugee Health Coverage, Physicians Tell Ottawa

Refugees are receiving health care, Alexander says
June 17, 2015 Updated: June 17, 2015
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Medical groups are appealing for public support ahead of a court case this fall that will attempt to reverse cuts to a federal health program that covers health care for refugees and refugee claimants.

The appeal was made at a press conference in Ottawa on Monday, June 15, the same day that health care and social service workers took part in protests against the cuts in 18 cities across the country.

In July 2014, Canada’s federal court ruled that cuts made in 2012 to the Interim Federal Health Program—which provides health care coverage to refugees not covered by provincial health plans—were in breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms section that deals with “cruel and unusual” treatment.

The government is appealing the ruling, but reinstated provisions for people under 19 and expectant mothers. A court challenge in October will seek to reinstate the program in full.

Our message is simple: reinstate health care benefits for all refugees.
— Dr. Doug Gruner, Bruyère Medical Centre

“While they have reversed some of the 2012 changes, there are still refugees without health coverage,” Dr. Chris Simpson, president of the Canadian Medical Association, told reporters at the press conference.

“Our message is simple: reinstate health care benefits for all refugees,” said Doug Gruner, a family physician at Bruyère Medical Centre in Ottawa.

“We have done a study that just finished up last week of 45 medical clinics from Orleans to Stittsville, and only two will actually see a refugee with a valid Interim Federal Health card. Every other clinic in the city will charge $50 to $75 just to see the doctor. This is the harsh reality we are still seeing on the front line.”

In question period on Monday, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander rejected the claim that refugees are not receiving care.

“Refugees in our country receive health care. We are proud that they continue to receive that health care from their federal government,” Alexander told the House.

“We will continue our appeal because we do not think it is fair that those whose asylum claims have failed or those whose asylum claims are fraudulent should be receiving better health care than Canadians themselves.”

According to the medical groups, the health cuts apply to all refugees, and claims that refugees are receiving better health care than Canadians are false. They also claim that the cuts are impacting services for Canadians.

“Speaking as a lawyer and a Canadian citizen, that this jumped between deliberate government disinformation and reality is shocking,” said Peter Showler, co-chair of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

“These guys … ignore the expert medical associations, they ignore the court, and they ignore the provinces.”

During the press conference, Chris Bradley with the Canadian Professional Nurse Association described an emergency case that he was involved with in Ottawa where a 15-year-old refugee arrived with a cornea eye issue that required immediate attention.

He arranged for the teen to see an optometrist, but complications meant a five-day delay or else paying a $700 bill.

“She was told that she had to pay $700 to be seen. The hope was that the person would be okay on the medication I gave her before she saw the optometrist for free,” said Bradley.

“I am still seeing lots of cases where children are being denied access to care or the parents are receiving bills afterwards,” added Dr. Tobey Audcent, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

“In many of these cases, the bill was sent erroneously. Think about it—you are a newly arrived Canadian and you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t speak the language—how scary is that for you to navigate the system.”

Kaven Baker-Voakes is a freelance reporter based in Ottawa.