A local group that helps refugee claimants is bemoaning government cuts to health care that will leave the people they help without medical coverage.
As of June 30, the federal government will no longer be offering supplemental health care for refugees through the interim federal health program.
Currently, under the program, a refugee claimant can see a doctor, have some prescriptions covered and get glasses and emergency dental work done.
"What's been acknowledged, is someone who comes in as a refugee is the poorest of the poor," said Brad Kinnie, a program manager with Journey Home Community Association, a faith-based non-profit that helps refugee claimants in Burnaby and New Westminster.
What's changing, Kinnie said, is the government is taking away the prescription coverage and vision and dental care for refugees. They will also be cutting back on access to health care, being able to see a family physician, for example.
In an April 25 government press release, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney characterized the changes as a move to ensure fairness for Canadian taxpayers.
"Canadians are very generous people, and Canada has a generous immigration system," he said. "However, we do not want to ask Canadian to pay for benefits for protected persons and refugee claimants that are more generous than what they are entitled to themselves."
The change is expected to save taxpayers $100 million over the next five years.
But, Kinnie pointed out that there are programs for low-income Canadians, like Fair PharmaCare, which refugees can't access. Kinnie said the changes were frustrating.
"We're dealing with a very traumatized population, and they're impoverished at the same time, and now we're dealing with health," Kinnie said.
"It's going to limit their options for accessing health care, and in some cases, it's going to - bar them from the health-care system," Kinnie said.
The changes affect newly arrived refugees, people who often apply for a work permit while they are waiting for their claim to be processed. Once a refugee claimant has a permit, which usually takes a few months, he or she can apply for provincial health-care coverage. But the interim federal health program covers newly arrived refugees for those months before the work permit is ready.
"If they went to the hospital and had a medical emergency, they would be treated, but they would receive a full-price bill," Kinnie said. "Really, what the federal government is doing is placing the burden on our provincial hospitals and our provincial health-care program. ... The refugee is going to go to the hospital in a medical emergency. They are going to be given a bill they can't pay."
Another worry for Kinnie is the federal government's Bill-C31, which creates a new system with two classes of refugee claimants: those who come from a "designated country of origin" and those who do not. Designated countries of origin (as determined by the immigration minister) are considered safe countries that do not produce refugees. People from designated countries of origin will get no health-care coverage, unless they have some communicable disease, like tuberculosis, that puts public health at risk. The refugees who are in the country legally and appealing their case will lose access to health care.
Burnaby resident Antal Bujka came to Canada as a refugee with his daughter and two grandchildren about a year ago. Bujka is of Roma descent and comes from Hungary. He described his country as a place where Roma people are denied work, discriminated against, persecuted and threatened by roaming gangs of racist skinheads. Due to complications with his file, Bujka, who has diabetes, has not received a work permit. He's also had problems getting his prescriptions covered under the current interim federal health program and has been off his diabetes medication for months.
With the impending Bill C-31 and its new classes of refugees, someone like Bujka could easily be considered as a person from a "designated country of origin" if the immigration minister decides Hungary is safe, although it may not be hospitable for Roma. That would leave Bujka without any health-care coverage.
Speaking through a translator, Bujka challenged the policy makers behind the bill, especially those who are not white, to travel to certain areas of his country after dark.
"I would be curious if he still thinks it's a safe country," Bujka said.
Kinnie said the changes will force people like Bujka to choose between eating food or paying rent and getting medical care, or it will force the health system to incur debts that can't be collected.
"On many different levels, it's frustrating," Kinnie said. Dr. Philip Berger, chief of the department of family and community medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, is one of the founding members of the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, a group that organized a national day of action on Monday, June 18, with more than 2,000 doctors and health-care professionals protesting the cuts.
"We are calling for a complete rescinding of the proposed changes to the interim federal health program," Berger said.
Berger pointed out that a refugee who has angina will no longer have their medication covered.
"It's the same with any other chronic condition," he said. "Those who are awaiting appeal will have access to virtually no medical care."
Berger said the federal government has been misleading Canadians.
"The government claims it's a matter of equity," Berger said. "The fact is (refugees) will be getting drastically less than Canadians under these changes. - Our view is they should stop bullying defenseless and powerless people. - Stop picking on people who are fleeing for their lives from countries where they are persecuted."
Berger cited a case at St. Michael's Hospital, where an obstetrician was asked by a refugee patient to have her baby delivered prematurely, before June 30 when the cuts come in effect so she would still have medical coverage.
"That is the terror this government has inflicted on refugees in Canada. We won't forget, none of us, the thousands of health-care workers across Canada will not forget," Berger said. "The federal government has sparked an insurrection amongst doctors and health-care professionals across Canada."