Cries of “care not cuts!” echoed down Hamilton’s King St. West as a group of protestors marched around Jackson Square as part of the fourth National Day of Action to protest cuts made to refugee health care in 2012.
The protestors were a diverse group, including nurses, doctors, medical students and other health-care professionals as well as steelworkers’ union activists, anti-poverty activists and a sizable contingent of Anglicans from the diocese of Niagara.
“[We] need to give care-everyone deserves that right,” said Alicia Archbell, Niagara’s diocesan youth ambassador to the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the Anglican Church of Canada’s relief and development agency. “It’s what Jesus would do with lepers-it’s going out and healing those who need it. To deny that to anyone is just wrong in the eyes of God.”
The Hamilton march was one of many such events taking place in 20 cities across Canada organized by the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care to call on the federal government to rescind its cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFH).
The IFH, which, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website, provides “limited, temporary, taxpayer-funded coverage of health-care benefits” to resettled refugees and refugee claimants, went through a series of changes in 2012 that involved cuts to the levels of health care available to different refugee groups, and created different tiers of care for different types of refugees.
The Federal Court ruled in 2014 that these cuts were “cruel and unusual,” insofar as they endanger the lives and jeopardize the health of vulnerable persons such as children, and ordered that the cuts be repealed. The Government of Canada is appealing the decision.
Dr. Andrea Hunter, a pediatrician involved in planning the event, said that she has had first-hand experience of the negative impact that the cuts are having on asylum-seekers.
“I see a number of children who are denied care essentially, or health-care coverage, because of their status in Canada as refugee claimants, and due to the confusion amongst health-care providers about the cuts,” she said. “We’re essentially trying to send a message to the Conservative government that refugees need health care; it’s cost-effective to provide them with preventative health care when they arrive.”
Before the cuts were made, all refugee claimants had access to medical care, diagnostic services, laboratory testing, medications, emergency dental care and vision care similar to the care available to Canadian citizens through provincial health and social assistance plans. Now, only government-sponsored refugees have this kind of coverage. Privately sponsored refugees rely on a mix of provincial health care and health care provided through the IFH, while refugee claimants-those who arrive in Canada independently-are allowed to receive health care only through the IFH, which will not cover medication, vision care or dental care. In the case of refugees who arrive from one of the 35 countries deemed by the government to be “safe” (a list that includes states such as Hungary, Cyprus and Mexico), coverage is provided only when withholding it poses a risk to public health.
Dr. Ali Mulla, himself the descendent of refugees from Uganda, says the system’s complexity is partially to blame for its failure to provide coverage to some individuals.
“Patients, many times, were just rejected from practitioner offices-not even when they don’t have appropriate coverage, but just because of the complications associated with it,” he said. “There are practitioners who are just completely confused with what’s going on because it keeps changing over and over again.”
Like Archbell, the Rev. Bill Mous, director of justice, community, and global ministries for the diocese of Niagara, sees this issue as being deeply tied to Christian concerns. “This is a moral issue,” he said in a pre-march address to the protesters from the steps of the federal building. “It’s a moral issue because we know the cuts to refugee health care are causing suffering and harm-to mothers and children, to fathers and grandparents.”
While Mous noted that the diocese was planning to sponsor “as many as 50 refugees” to celebrate its 140th anniversary this year, he also stressed that “the need for resettlement grows more and more each day” and called on the government to “stop the legal appeals and reverse these unjust cuts to refugee health care.”
Chris Alexander, Canada’s minister of Citizenship and Immigration, has argued that the cuts are necessary to keep “bogus” refugees from taking advantage of the Canadian health-care system, and that the changes instituted will protect the rights of “genuine” refugees. He has also stressed how much money the cuts will save.