Providing healthcare to everyone in Canada, including refugees

WATCH: Doctors and healthcare support workers are protesting government cuts to refugee healthcare. Dr. Ali Zentner explains what those cuts are and their effect on patients and healthcare providers.

As a second generation Canadian I’m proud to call this country my home. I think it’s a wonderful place to live and an even better place to practice medicine.

Sure the system has its issues, but I take pride in knowing that I am a part of a service that never refuses care to anyone in need.

The system of universal healthcare was founded on the principles of universal access for all.

At least that’s what I thought until I learned about the changes to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) program.

Let me say that in researching this piece I was struck by the level of complexity of the IFH program.

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English is my first language and I’d like to think I’m pretty intelligent.

The details of the program were difficult to navigate even for me. I can’t imagine how it would be for someone with English as a second language and less knowledge of the system.

Allow me to explain.

The interim Federal Health (IFH) program was first established in 1957 to provide care to refugees to Canada. Between 1957 and 2012 the plan provided medical care that was similar to provincial health plans.

Patients on the IFH received similar care and medications as Canadians on social assistance.

Under this plan regular doctors visits for adults and children as well as medications for acute and chronic illness were covered.

In June 2012 the federal government made significant changes to the Interim Federal Health plan.

BELOW: Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care slammed the federal government Monday for cuts to refugee healthcare

To better understand the cuts, its important to know that there are different types of refugees in Canada.

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Resettled refugees are those who are recognized as having refugee status before arriving in the country and are accepted as refugees upon entry.

Refugee claimants are the second type of refugees to Canada. They make their claims after arriving in Canada and wait to be approved. If not approved, they are refused refugee status and can be deported.

Furthermore, the Citizenship and Immigration Canada has identified 37 countries known as designated countries of origin (DCO), which the government believes, are “safe” and should not be producing refugees.

Under the new plan, all refugee claimants — those who have come to Canada and are awaiting refugee status — have lost access to medication coverage, vision and dental care.

Refugees from DCO countries have lost all access to healthcare including urgent medical visits except in specific infectious disease cases.

If you are a pregnant woman from one of the DCO countries and now in Canada awaiting refugee status, you will not be able to safely deliver your baby in a hospital.

You will not have access to prenatal screening and your child will not have any postnatal care including well baby visits and immunizations…. That is unless you pay for this.

A 75-year-old diabetic who is a refugee claimant does not get his insulin covered under the new laws. A 56-year-old with breast cancer will not get chemotherapy.

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If a refugee claimant from DCO presents to hospital with an acute illness they will be expected to pay for care. Indeed, I would argue that a vast majority of my colleagues would never think of sending such a patient a bill.

READ MORE: Threatened with torture abroad, faced with limited health coverage in Canada (June 2013)

In Canada, most hospitals will absorb the cost and not charge the patient.

Recent reports indicate public hospitals are absorbing large, unexpected costs due to the federal cuts to refugee health care.

It is estimated that five Toronto-area hospitals alone accounted for more than $1 million, in 2013, in unexpected costs due to providing necessary health care to refugees who are no longer insured by the federal government.

I understand the cost of healthcare in this country.

As someone on the frontline, this is a pressing issue in our society. We can’t afford the system we have. But that is another story entirely.

But, I also understand that certain prevention efforts save money.

Simple medication coverage for all prevents hospital visits for emergencies especially when treating chronic illness.

When we make it easier for people with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or cancer to get access to outpatient medication we save the system money in the long run by preventing costly hospital visits and hospital admissions.

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But think about this for a moment on a non-monetary level. Think about this matter from the true Canadian perspective.

Canadians are proud of our humanitarian tradition. Our society will be judged by how we respond to the most vulnerable among us. This statement holds the greatest truth when it comes to providing care for the sick.

I’m proud to practice medicine in a country that has a tradition of never refusing to treat those in need.

It’s time for Ottawa to re-examine this political move and reopen the dialogue and the hospital doors to refugees to this country. We can’t afford the cost of saying “no” to the health of refugees to Canada.

What is perceived, as a quick financial fix will rebound with greater long-term costs.

This is more than just a bad financial decision. In fact, I would argue that these cuts will indeed affect who we are as a nation.

We can’t say no to the health of refugees purely because we are Canadians. And that means something in the moral framework of the world.

Dr. Ali Zentner is a specialist in internal medicine and a medical consultant for Global National’s “Health Matters” segment.

This article is not written by Global News. The author is solely responsible for the content. © Doctor Ali Zentner, 2014


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