Feds face fight over refugee health cuts
By Jasminee Sahoye
In 2002, when a Guyanese family who claimed their lives were at risk had their refugee status application denied, they were covered for health care.
Even so, because they were a family with four children and two have had complicated health issues, they had to dig into their pockets to pay for bills, including hospitalization. Because of their strong family support, they managed to pay for health care. But 2012 refugee health care cuts by Ottawa have meant many more were not so lucky.
The family subsequently filed documents on humanitarian grounds, claiming all the siblings of the husband and wife were already citizens of Canada and there were no family ties in Guyana. Close to eight years later, they were granted permanent status by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Now that they are Canadian citizens, the Singh family is thankful that their relatives were able to help with their medical bills during their bid to stay in Canada after they arrived on holiday visas.
Their story is not unique to many, who flee their countries for a better life due to reasons such as political, racial and economic tensions. Many refugee claimants do not have relatives to lend support as the Singhs did.
When the federal government implemented cuts to its Interim Federal Health (IFH) Program, which covers basic health care for refugees, refugee claimants and certain other non-citizens on June 30, 2012, organizations and advocates that represent these groups of people felt it was too harsh.
As a result, the matter was taken to the Federal Court which recently released a decision giving the government four months to change cuts to refugee health care. The court threatened to strike down the changes.
The government, through Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, will appeal the court decision.
Alexander told a news conference the government “vigorously defends the interests of Canadian taxpayers” and said he wants to emphasize “genuine refugees.” The appeal goes to the Federal Court of Appeal, but could end up in the Supreme Court if one side challenges the Federal Court of Appeal’s eventual decision.
The Federal Court found the government’s treatment of refugees is “cruel and unusual” because it jeopardizes their health and shocks the conscience of Canadians.
Judge Anne Mactavish ruled the federal cabinet has the power to make such changes and that the procedure was fair but that the people affected by the changes are being subjected to “cruel and unusual” treatment.
“This is particularly, but not exclusively, so as it affects children who have been brought to this country by their parents,” Mactavish wrote in the 268-page decision.
“The 2012 modifications to the (Interim Federal Health Program) potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency. I have found as a fact that lives are being put at risk.”
Ottawa cut medical benefits for newcomers in 2012, leaving most immigrants with basic, essential health care but without benefits such as vision and dental care.
However, rejected refugee claimants ” and refugee claimants from countries the government considers safe ” are eligible under the new law for care only when they pose a threat to public health.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Council for Refugees is calling on the government to reinstate the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) as it existed before the cuts.