By Neil Armstrong
Pride Contributing Writer
Ontario is joining other provinces by reinstating access to essential and urgent health care for refugee claimants through the new Ontario Temporary Health Program, and will send the federal government the bill to pay for the program.
Effective Jan. 1, 2014, the program will help reduce unnecessary emergency room visits and stress on health providers by providing vulnerable refugee claimants with basic health care services as soon as a health issue surfaces.
Ontario is joining Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Quebec by taking steps to address gaps in health coverage for refugee claimants.
In a press release, the Ontario government said in 2012, the federal government abdicated its responsibility to provide basic care for many refugee claimants by changing the refugee application process in Canada and cutting the Interim Federal Health Program.
Deb Matthews, Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, described the federal government’s decision as very bad and said Ontario is still calling on the Harper government to reverse the decision.
“We will keep track of what we spend on refugee health coverage because we have to set up a separate system to administer so it will be very easy for us to determine how much money we are spending to provide health care that should be covered by the federal government,” Matthews said in an interview with Pride News Magazine at a media reception hosted by Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberal Caucus and held at the Pearson Convention Centre in Brampton, Ontario on December 15, 2013.
She said the federal government is responsible for refugee health but turned their back on many refugees when they abdicated that responsibility.
Through the temporary provincial program, refugee claimants who are not eligible for health care under the new federal rules or through other government programs will be able to access most primary care and urgent hospital services, as well as medication coverage.
Matthews met with Chris Alexander, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, in December 2013 to make a strong case that the federal government has a legal responsibility to cover refugees.
“I don’t think I’ll be successful with this government but I am hopeful I will be with future governments,” she said.
She said Ontario, along with other provincial governments, will continue to call on the federal government to reinstate the federal program providing all refugee claimants health care coverage.
Approximately 48,900 or 55 percent of all refugee claimants in Canada live in Ontario, with the majority in Greater Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa areas.
Refugee claimants tend to have poorer health outcomes and are less likely to have planned their arrival to Canada or to have the financial resources to purchase health insurance privately.
As a result of the federal government’s cuts to its health care refugee program, more than 30 percent of Ontario’s refugee claimants are without health coverage beyond public health and public safety coverage.
Minister Matthews said after the cuts were made it was chaos in communities where there are a lot of refugees because it was left to the health care provider to ask, “what country did you come from?” and then check “this ever-changing list of what countries were covered and what countries weren’t, when did you come, what particularly is the health condition to be covered or not, and it was a terrible burden on those doctors, health care providers and hospitals.”
She said the result was some people who ought to have been covered were turned away so it was enormously disruptive.
“Physicians have seen the drastic consequences of the federal government’s cuts to refugee health insurance. Sick children have been denied care, pregnant women have been unable to seek prenatal care placing their pregnancy at serious risk and cancer patients are not covered for lifesaving chemotherapy. Many of these patients will become Canadian citizens. We are grateful for the provincial government’s temporary refugee health program but call on the federal government to close the remaining gaps in coverage which still threaten the health and safety of both refugees and Canadians,” said Dr. Phillip Berger, Chief of Family and Community Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital and member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care.
Michael Coteau, Ontario’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, said the province supports a refugee adjudication system that reflects the principles of fairness, compassion, and efficiency.
“Some of those who come to our province to build a better life, put themselves at risk just trying to get here. They need our support,” he said.
Coteau said the new Ontario Temporary Health Program is about keeping people healthy which in the long term saves more money than the $20 million that is being invested.
The minister said in 2014 he intends to continue pushing forward an agenda that includes everyone in the province and that does not divide people based on boundaries, religion, colour or income.
“It’s about continuing that narrative of one Ontario where we fight for everyone in this province and we know that we are stronger together than others may believe when they divide people up and put them in categories and build support based on those categories,” he said.