By the Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition, Winnipeg Manitoba
On April 25th, 2012 the Federal government announced cuts to most healthcare benefits for refugees that are currently provided by Canada’s Interim Federal Health (IFH) program, effective on June 30, 2012. Across Canada, healthcare providers, people who work with refugees and ordinary citizens are rallying against this decision, concerned that it flies in the face of an important Canadian value – providing a safe haven for vulnerable people around the world. Ironically, the cuts come into effect just in time for Canada Day.
The IFH program provides access to refugees and refugee claimants who need healthcare for a temporary period of time, and who generally have no other means of obtaining necessary health benefits. Refugees are a particularly vulnerable population, often with extreme healthcare needs. Many have untreated health conditions and severe trauma resulting from prolonged periods in refugee camps and human rights violations such as torture. Having fled their homeland to escape persecution, many are destitute when they arrive in Canada and lack the resources to pay for healthcare expenses.
The announced changes to the IFH program include cutting access to essential medication, cuts to basic primary health care, cuts to dental care, vision care, ambulance services and cuts to mobility devices like wheelchairs, for many classes of refugees. Healthcare services to be cut include prenatal care, child health check-ups and access to mental health care. Some refugees will receive basic emergency care only if their condition is deemed to pose a threat to public health.
Canadian Doctors for Medicare warn that these cuts could result in diabetics not getting their insulin, children not receiving immunizations, and people not receiving needed heart medication, potentially contributing to heart attacks.
Federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney, said: “With this reform, we are also taking away an incentive from people who may be considering filing an unfounded refugee claim in Canada. These reforms allow us to protect public health and safety, ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely and defend the integrity of our immigration system all at the same time.”
Minister Kenney fails to understand that providing health supports to refugees when they arrive is both cost effective and an investment in the future. A recent Globe and Mail story highlighted a refugee who received care under the IFH: “Majid Boozary came to Canada in 1980, fleeing post-revolutionary Iran, where he had been persecuted and tortured. He needed care and got it. But Dr. Boozary has given back in spades, as a family physician (who has paid taxes for 30 years) and a volunteer with the Canadian Centre for the Victims of Torture.”
Furthermore, health professionals question the validity of the IFH cuts as a cost-saving measure. They point out that costs will be shifted to other public programs and organizations that provide the uninsured with health benefits, such as community health centres and provincial social support services. Refugees with chronic diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, will seek care in hospitals and through emergency departments – one of the most costly forms of care.
Opposition to the proposed changes is led by physicians and other healthcare providers. “It is unprecedented in Canada for physicians to gather at once from coast to coast voicing their concerns over a single patient care issue such as this one. Doctors and other healthcare workers are being moved to action in an effort to prevent the devastating impact of these health cuts to some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society” says Dr. Michael Dillon, a family physician practicing in downtown Winnipeg who has worked with newcomer refugees for nearly 20 years.
Minister Kenney has defended these cuts by arguing that refugees should not be receiving health coverage that is not available to other Canadians. Louise Simbandumwe, a refugee from Burundi, counters, “This is simply not the case. Many Canadians have extended health coverage through their workplaces while Canadians who are living at the same low levels of income as government–assisted refugees receive needed health coverage through provincial social assistance programs.“
“Canada is known around the world as a champion of human rights and we pride ourselves in our system of health care for all. We are concerned about the erosion of Canadian standards. This move is definitely un-Canadian. We are calling on the Federal government to reverse the decision to cut back the Interim Federal Health Program” states Carlos Vialard, Settlement Services Manager at the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council Inc. (Welcome Place).
Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition is a group of professionals, community workers and community members based in Winnipeg who care about the well being and fair treatment of refugees and immigrants in Canada.