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Feds may backtrack on proposed reforms to refugee health policy

Jul 06, 2012
News source: Ottawa Citizen

The federal government appears to have quietly backtracked on sweeping changes to its refugee health policy, a turnaround applauded by doctors even as it is denied by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

In April, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced reforms to the Interim Federal Health Program, which provides temporary health benefits to refugees until they qualify for provincial and territorial coverage.

Historically, the benefits included basic medical care as well as supplemental benefits such as pharmaceutical, vision and dental care, at a level similar to that provided by the provinces for people on social assistance. It was given to most refugees, whether they came as part of a government resettlement program, were privately sponsored, or asked for asylum on arrival on Canadian soil. It also applied to rejected refugee claimants awaiting deportation. The cost of the program was roughly $84 million a year.

When the changes were announced, a department press release explained that "the reformed program will end the coverage of supplemental health-care benefits," something Kenney said was motivated by a sense of fairness.

"We do not want to ask Canadians to pay for benefits for protected persons and refugee claimants that are more generous than what they are entitled to themselves."

Medical practitioners and refugee advocates denounced the introduction of more barriers to health care for what they said is an already vulnerable population. Eight national professional groups, including the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association, called on the government to revoke the reforms.

Then, sometime last Friday, Citizenship and Immigration Canada's website was changed to say that supplemental benefits would not be cut for a large group of refugees, specifically those selected and resettled from abroad by the government (government assisted-refugees or GARs) and those privately-sponsored refugees who receive federal financial assistance. Previously, the "Summary of Changes to the Interim Federal Health Program" (posted in April) clearly showed that as of June 30, all "protected persons" (including resettled refugees and successful asylum claimants) would lose the supplemental benefits.

There was no press release pointing to an eleventh-hour turnaround. In fact, in an an email to Postmedia News, the minister's press secretary firmly denied there had been any change and said government-assisted refugees were never expected to lose supplemental benefits.


C.I.C. sent a Notice to Beneficiaries well before last week stating that IFHP "benefits will be reduced for all current and future beneficiaries," and that "prescription drug benefits are being reduced for all beneficiaries ... Vision care, dental care, devices to assist mobility, home care and long-term care will no longer be covered."

The plans also had been detailed in case studies and summaries posted to the C.I.C. site and emailed by department spokespeople to doctors, settlement workers, refugee activists and journalists - most of whom requested even greater clarity. The main confusion was over how to interpret the definition of the "urgent and essential care" refugees would now be limited to, not which refugees would be affected.

As confusing as the changing terminology is, the new web page makes it clear that one thing hasn't changed: rejected refugee claimants will receive strictly limited benefits, and then only when they have a condition that is considered a threat to public health, such as tuberculosis.

Rashid says his doctors' group will continue to press for all the changes to be rescinded. In particular, privately-sponsored refugees who don't receive federal financial assistance are still losing their benefits. In the meantime, the doctors plan to issue a press release Tuesday.

"We're going to applaud the government for their decision to back down on the cuts to refugee health," said Rashid. "Even if they haven't stated they're doing it, we do we feel they ought to be recognized for it."

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