OTTAWA (CCN) — Refugee advocates welcomed the Liberal government’s Feb. 18 announcement it will restore health care funding to refugees which the previous Conservative government cut in 2012.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum and Health Minister Jane Philpott announced the government will fully restore the Interim Federal Health Program to pre-2012 levels as of April 1 this year.
“The reform will ensure that all refugees and refugee claimants can access services based exclusively on their health needs,” McCallum said.
In addition, the ministers announced that as of April 1, 2017, the government will expand health care services for refugees prior to their departure to Canada. McCallum said these services will include coverage for “immigration medical examinations, certain vaccinations, management of outbreaks in refugee camps and medical support during travel to Canada.”
“We’re relieved because in the end this will make a huge difference to disconnected and defenseless people who could not really speak on their own behalf while in Canada,” said Dr. Philip Berger, the co- co-chair of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and medical director of the inner-city health program at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“Obviously there’s still another month and a half for people to be without full coverage, but excellent news for all refuges and everyone who cares about refugees,” said Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench.
Dench said the impact of the cuts was “absolutely devastating,” leaving people without coverage or incomplete coverage. One refugee had enough money for chemotherapy to treat his cancer, but not enough for drugs to mitigate the side effects, she said. There were children and pregnant women left without coverage.
“There was a sigh of relief from church-based organizations and all sponsorship agreement holders when this announcement was finally made,” said Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) executive director Joe Gunn.
Not only did the cuts put the health of refugees at risk, they created a risky financial burden on churches and groups doing private refugee sponsorships, said Gunn.
“With these cuts in place, private sponsors have been on the line for vision and dental care, prosthetics, mobility devices, and medication,” he said. “This is a huge financial risk for refugee-sponsoring churches.”
“Economically it’s a sound decision because it’s better to take care of people before they get really sick, than have the system take care of them when they develop some permanent chronic illness that could have been prevented,” Berger said.
The Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care were co-litigants in a court battle to reinstate the cuts that resulted in a July 2014 Federal Court decision that described the cuts as unconstitutional and “cruel and unusual” treatment.
“Members of our groups had documented that doctors, health care facilities, and some hospitals were denying refugees care even though they had valid interim federal health coverage just because no one understood the new system that the Conservatives brought in,” said Berger.
The Conservatives, in an attempt to discourage what they called “bogus refugee claimants,” had cut back coverage for refugee claimants who were in the process of getting their refugee status determined.
Dench said many legitimate refugees were cut off because they were in the refugee claim process. Many would eventually be found to be refuges. “It’s not their fault if they are waiting to have a hearing,” Dench said. “Sometimes they are waiting years.”
At the news conference the health minister pointed out refugee claimants and refugees who have completed the process will all be eligible for the same level of care, greatly simplifying the process.
Berger said the federal government is going to have to be “unambiguously clear” in communicating to health care professionals that refugees are “guaranteed coverage and they don’t have to worry about the failure to be compensated.”
Philpott noted the administrative burden on health care providers has been so difficult some have decided not to become involved in refugee health care. Other health care providers have helped refugees, but given up expecting to be remunerated for it, she said.
McCallum said Syrian refugees coming into Canada have already been receiving the full health care coverage. On April 1, the program expands to include all refugee claimants.
McCallum said $51 million per year has been budgeted for the Interim Federal Health Care Program, but not all that money has been spent due to the previous government’s cutbacks.
“The cost of the measures we’re announcing today to restore the program as of 2016-17 will cost $5.9 million per year and the additional measures for resettled refugees are estimated to cost $5.6 million beginning in 2017-2018,” he said.