Cuts to Refugee Health Care Hurt the Most Vulnerable
Parliament Hill was the site this week of yet another rally by health care workers to protest cuts made by the Conservative government to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP). The spark for this most recent protest was a political flyer sent out by Conservative MP Kelly Block praising recent Conservative cuts to refugee health benefits. Block suggests in her mailout that taxpayers should no longer pay for health care for refugees when such services are not available to Canadians.
The IFHP is a federal health insurance program designed to cover refugees and refugee claimants who are not eligible for provincial or territorial health insurance plans. In April 2012, Jason Kenney, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, announced that the federal government would substantially cut the program by ending supplemental healthcare benefits, including pharmaceutical care, dentistry, vision care and the provision of wheelchairs, for refugee claimants and privately sponsored refugees. In addition, cuts have been made to basic primary health care, like prenatal care, cancer treatments, health checkups for children, and mental health services. Some refugees will receive emergency care only if their condition is deemed a threat to public health.
Health care workers are rightly concerned that the cuts are jeopardizing the health of a very vulnerable population. Dr. Philip Berger, Chief of Family and Community Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital has warned that “these program cuts would reduce care, increase costs to other areas of the health system and needlessly threaten public safety.” Since the cuts have taken effect, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care have documented cases where individuals have been denied access to care, and medical clinics have refused to treat patients, even those with IFHP coverage.
Along with many other Canadians, I have been amazed at the site of protesters in white lab coats confronting politicians about the harm they are inflicting on a very vulnerable population. While I have been researching and writing about refugee law issues for many years, this time my interest is far more personal than academic. I have come to know only too well what doctors and medical students have denounced because of my involvement in sponsoring and resettling two women refugees as a member of Capital Rainbow Refuge. Capital Rainbow Refuge is a group founded by more than a dozen members of the lesbian and gay communities of Ottawa. We are a diverse group of professionals, lawyers, law students and community activists who have a strong commitment to Canada’s long tradition of welcoming refugees. Ironically, we came together at a time when Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, was challenging LGBT Canadians to sponsor sexual minority refugees to Canada. We took him up on his challenge and committed to supporting a lesbian refugee couple for one year as they settle into a safe life in Canada after fleeing persecution from family and society in their country of origin.
When Minister Kenney called on Canadians to privately sponsor LGBT refugees, he did not tell us he intended to make that commitment harder than we expected. Indeed, the lesbian women we have sponsored face serious health challenges. Before arriving in Canada, they spent over a year hiding from abusive family in a third country, after leaving their own country where women, and especially lesbians, are denied many basic human rights. They did not have access to health or dental care for many years and the care they now need surpasses what the provincial plan will cover (thankfully, Ontario does provide them with OHIP coverage).
Our group had to first advocate with federal bureaucrats to have the two women covered under what remains of the IFHP; the rules are unclear about what happens to refugees who are sponsored jointly by government and a private group, as in our case. While we succeeded, we are now navigating a refugee health care system where confusion, unnecessary costs and compromised care reigns, as documented by Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. Not only has this meant that the two women continue to struggle with serious health issues, and health and dental care continues to be denied or delayed, it impedes their ability to fully integrate into the work place and Canadian society.
We expected challenges in resettling a lesbian couple who had fled a country that criminalizes and persecuted sexual minorities. But we did not expect that one of the significant hurdles we would confront would be our very own Canadian health care system. So the next time health care workers gather on Parliament Hill to protests unequal health care for refugees, I will find a white lab coat and join them.