November 26, 2015 3:32 pm
Updated: November 26, 2015 5:52 pm

What’s the deal with refugee health care? A brief explainer

WATCH ABOVE: Health Minister Jane Philpott speaks about Canada's plan to resettle Syrian refugees.

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There seems to be a lot of confusion over what health care Canada offers refugees and refugee claimants and what will happen to the Syrian refugees Canada has pledged to resettle over the next few months.

Here’s a very brief, very basic primer.

READ MORE: No, Canada doesn’t spend more on refugees than on retirees

Do refugees get health care?

Yes – most of them.

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But it’s more complicated than it used to be.

Up until a few years ago, everyone who had claimed refugee status — including people who were in limbo waiting to see if their claim would be approved — got the same health care as Canadians on social assistance through the Interim Federal Health Program.

In 2012, cuts to that program meant refugee claimants got much more limited health care and refugee claimants from certain countries (“Designated Countries of Origin”) got almost none. And privately sponsored refugees, which most of the first wave of new Syrian refugees will be, get less than they did before.

Privately sponsored refugees are eligible for provincial health coverage, the kind most Canadians get, when they arrive in Canada. But right now they aren’t covered for many medically necessary treatments, including medications, dental care, eye care, prosthetics or counselling by a psychologist or other non-physician.

A federal court called those cuts “cruel and unusual” and ordered the federal Conservatives to reverse them. They appealed.

The federal government has promised to reverse the 2012 cuts but won’t say when that will happen. They won’t even respond to questions from Global News as to what the process is to reverse those cuts: Could Citizenship and Immigration Minister John McCallum do that on his own, as an administrative change? Would it need to go through Parliament? We don’t know.

READ MORE: Unanswered questions in the Liberals’ Syrian refugee strategy

“The Government is committed to restoring the Interim Federal Health Program. We are currently working towards that goal,” Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Theodora Jean wrote in an email Wednesday.

“Syrian refugees resettled from abroad as part of the Government’s commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016 will receive full coverage under the Interim Federal Health Program.”

READ MORE: Canada won’t say when refugee health care will be restored

Some provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, stepped in with their own programs to bridge the gap created by the 2012 cuts. But the resulting system was so complicated and involved so much extra paperwork, many health practitioners simply turn people away.

Why should refugees get better health care than Canadians?

They don’t. They get the same health programs Canadians on social assistance get.

Can we afford this? Paying for health care for all these refugees sounds expensive.

Pre-2012 cuts, the federal refugee health program cost about $84 million a year. At the time the feds said 2012’s cuts would save the federal government about $20 million a year.

But provinces and health advocates argued it ended up costing the system far more and put the public at risk because of untreated illnesses.

The federal Liberals have said their plan to resettle Syrian refugees will cost a maximum of $678 million but it isn’t clear whether that includes health care for refugees while they’re in Canada. It’s important to note, however, that refugees are obliged to pay back the costs of their flight and their initial medical exam — with interest.

WATCH: Health practitioners prepare to treat influx of refugees

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