Last year when the government of Canada announced the overwhelming cuts they would be making to the Interim Federal Health Program, the system in charge of funding refugee health care services, the news was devastating.
As a result of these cuts many refugees are being denied access to health care, with pregnant women becoming particularly vulnerable which can be seen in some of the examples further below. Refugees that have just arrived do not qualify for health care coverage for many weeks after making a claim which not only puts them at risk but the rest of the population as well. For the most part refugees have unique health needs that are different from the Canadian population, and coming from around the world they suffer from medical problems that may not be found in Canada, such as strongyloides and schistosomiasis. They also have higher rates of certain medical issues, like viral illnesses, which due to these health cuts could not be addressed for months while they make their claim and place those around them at risk as well. According to a report made by OCASI, many clinics and hospitals are also refusing to care for refugees because of a lack of clarity around IFH coverage rules and the inability of the government’s private sector insurance company, Blue Cross, to provide definitive information. In the last year provincial governments are being forced to pay more in health services as the hospitals that do accept refugees are being overwhelmed with increasing refugee emergency room visits- a last resort by refugees who are desperate and find themselves cut off from the less expensive primary care and medication that IFH should be providing.
The silver lining to all these cuts is as follows: not only are social and settlements workers protesting these changes but many doctors, nurses, and other health care professions across the country have rallied against the changes made. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care have put together dozens of reports outlining how the IFH cuts would only increase costs in the long-run and individual physicians have also come forth to the media and OCASI with some real-life examples of the impacts of these cuts including:
· A man requiring urgent eye surgery to prevent blindness is refused IFH coverage because he is said to be an “illegal migrant expected to leave the country”. Ten days later he receives notification from Citizen and Immigration Canada that he is eligible for permanent residency status.
· A young female refugee claimant is 18 weeks pregnant as a result of a sexual assault while being used as a sexual slave. She has no IFH coverage to address the pregnancy.
· A refugee claimant, 36 weeks pregnant, is told by her obstetrician that IFH will no longer provide insurance for her pregnancy or delivery and to bring in $3000 for her next appointment. After weeks of anxiety and investigation, the IFH program admits they made a mistake and the woman will be covered.
· A male refugee claimant experiencing chest pain and having characteristics that makes his physician suspicious of tuberculosis is not eligible for a chest x-ray.
· A male refugee applicant will have his IFH coverage expire shortly. He has three children, two requiring immunizations and a third requiring follow-up on an operation on his aorta at birth. They were turned away from two clinics and are unable to see a physician.
· A refugee claimant, 32 weeks pregnant, presents at two emergency rooms suffering from lower abdominal pain. On both occasions she is told that she would have to sign a document stating that she would be responsible for the costs of her visit. She leaves the emergency room on both occasions without being seen.
These examples are only a few in hundreds of cases, some critical ones here in Waterloo Region. The examples of pregnant women being turned down for health care in particular hits home for me, as I think about how my mother was a recently landed refugee when she became pregnant with me.
The issues involved with covering refugee health care are complex ones, especially with the Minster of Immigration, Jason Kenney, stating that Canada should not have to cover so much health care for refugees when some portions of the Canadian population are not covered. In my opinion, it makes more sense to try and find solutions to improve our health care system than to let an already incredibly vulnerable group take the fall. Luckily I’m not alone in my thinking. Dr. Michael Stephenson, 34, has recently opened a health clinic dedicated to the ongoing care of refugees here in the city of Kitchener. He is the director and sole physician of this new clinic called Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre. Though small, the service he is providing and the values behind it are truly inspirational. Check out the clinics website at http://www.sanctuaryrefugee.ca/
For more information on the IFH cuts check out: