Canadian doctors are rallying against cuts to refugee health care and calling on the federal government to drop its “costly” appeal of a Federal Court ruling that deemed the cutbacks “cruel and unusual.”
In what’s being billed as “the largest Day of Action yet,” doctors and health care professionals in at least 20 Canadian cities staged protests against the cuts on Monday.
The group Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care is calling on Ottawa to drop its appeal of last year’s Federal Court decision that ruled the cuts to refugee health care unconstitutional. In a news release, the group says the Conservative government has spent more than $1 million on its appeal.
At a news conference before Monday’s rally in Ottawa, the president of the Canadian Medical Association said the cuts are affecting “some of the most vulnerable people” in Canada, including children and pregnant women.
Dr. Chris Simpson said the government’s stance on refugee care is “not consistent with the Canada I know.”
The legal fight over refugee health care began in 2012, when the Conservatives made cuts to the Interim Federal Health program, or IFH. Refugee claimants lost access to vision and dental care, as well as drug coverage. Rejected refugee claimants and those from so-called “safe countries” could only get care if they posed a public health risk.
A group of doctors and refugee claimants took the government to court, which resulted in the July 2014 ruling that the cutbacks were putting people’s lives at risk and were therefore unconstitutional.
Pending its appeal, the federal government instituted a temporary plan that expanded coverage for refugee children and pregnant women. But advocates say that refugee health care coverage is still tiered, depending on where the claim is being made, and drug coverage is still restricted.
“There are still refugees today without health coverage,” Simpson told reporters.
In question period Monday, NDP MP Andrew Cash called on the Conservatives to “do the right thing and reinstate health care for refugees.”
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander responded by saying that Cash was “misleading the Canadian public.”
“Refugees in this country receive health care. We are proud that they continue to receive that health care from their federal government,” Alexander said.
“We don’t think it’s fair that those whose asylum claims have failed or whose claims were fraudulent should be receiving better health care than Canadians,” he added.
Dr. Doug Gruber, of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, told CTV Power Play that the cuts in question apply not just to failed refugee claimants but also to privately-sponsored refugees.
“It’s a real tragedy for a lot of these refugees, many of them children, who cannot access their medications for asthma, diabetes,” Gruber said.
Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care said it has documented “many examples of refugees being denied important public health care services.”
Nurse practitioner Chris Bradley elaborated at Monday’s news conference. They include a 15-year-old refugee who was told she’d have to pay $700 to urgently see an ophthalmologist, an HIV-positive man who lost access to medication because his private insurance had lapsed, and a young mother who did not qualify for a certain type of chemotherapy drug because of her refugee status.
Dr. Tobey Audcent, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said that even though refugee children are supposed to be covered under the government’s interim plan, some parents are still getting huge bills after their child’s trip to a hospital.
That means that doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals have to spend a lot of time on the phone trying to help refugees navigate the Canadian health-care system, Audcent said.
“I cannot and will not turn a sick child away,” she said.
Monday’s rallies were held in cities from Vancouver to St. John’s.
Liberal MP Dr. Kirsty Duncan was among those who attended the Ottawa rally. On Twitter she shared a photo of herself at the protest.
The three co-founders of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care have also written an open letter to U2 frontman Bono, who was meeting with Harper and opposition leaders in Ottawa on Monday to discuss maternal and child health care projects.
“Many refugees come to Canada with little more than the clothes on their back, providing basic, necessary health services to them – especially pregnant women and children – is the responsible thing to do,” the letter says. “As you have noted in the past ‘The world needs more Canada,’ and there is something Canada can do about maternal health right now: it can restore the cuts to refugee health care and help people fleeing crisis situations.
“We respectfully encourage you to raise these issues in your meeting with Prime Minister Harper.