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Ottawa softens hardline stance on medical treatment for refugees

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on May 30, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Doctors who treat refugees on a regular basis are taking issue with a federal decision to backtrack on cuts to health benefits for some asylum seekers but not others.

After defending its plan to eliminate supplemental health benefits for refugees, including payments for prescription drugs, vision care and dental coverage, the immigration department quietly rescinded the cuts last Friday – but only for people who are brought to Canada by the government through the Resettlement Assistance Program and for some victims of human smuggling.

"Our intention was never to have this policy impact government-sponsored refugees who have been living in UN refugee camps, who arrive in Canada as permanent residents, but who do not initially qualify for provincial social support," Alexis Pavlich, a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, said in an e-mail on Tuesday.

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While doctors praise the decision to keep the supplemental benefits in place for some refugees, they say all of the cuts to health-care benefits which took effect on June 30 should be rescinded.

Refugees sponsored by church groups and other humanitarian organizations, and those who arrive here seeking asylum after fleeing a country that Canada has deemed to be unsafe, are "out of luck," Philip Berger, chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said in a telephone interview. They will be entitled to medical health coverage "only if of an urgent or essential nature" – a proviso that was removed last week for government-sponsored refugees.

Other cuts to refugee health services will remain in place. Treatment under the Interim Federal Health Program will be denied to refugees who come from a country that Canada has declared to be safe, and to those whose claims have been rejected but are still living in Canada. The only exceptions will be cases in which a disease poses a risk to public health or safety.

The minister has argued that the moves, which will save the government about $20-million annually, were necessary because refugees were receiving better health benefits than those provided by governments to ordinary Canadians. The doctors counter that refugees are often very poor and, under the old system, were getting the same care as hundreds of thousands of impoverished Canadians receive through social assistance.

Dr. Berger said the decision to maintain the supplemental health benefits in cases where the government has brought the refugees to Canada throws Mr. Kenney's argument out the window. "The government is caught in this complete contradiction," he said, "using [the rationale of] equity to not cover some refugees but all of a sudden the equity argument disappears for the government-assisted refugees."

It is the second time in less than two months that the minister has softened his efforts to keep bogus refugees out of Canada. In May, he suddenly removed a provision from new legislation that would have forced asylum seekers who arrive by boat to spend a year in detention.

"This flip flop is a symptom of the fact that we have a minister of immigration who is making it up as he goes along," said Jinny Sims, the NDP immigration critic, who said the removal of benefits for some refugees and not others is going to sow confusion. "It seems all of this is being done on the back of a napkin instead of a thought-out coherent plan."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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