N.S. doctors call on feds to re-instate health care coverage for refugee claimants

WATCH: Every year, dozens of refugee claimants settle in Nova Scotia but many do not get primary health care due to cuts made by the federal government three years ago. But as Global’s Julia Wong reports, doctors in Nova Scotia rallied Monday in hopes of changing that.

HALIFAX – There was a small show of force in Halifax Monday afternoon as doctors, refugee advocates and members of the public gathered to call on the federal government to restore health care benefits for refugee claimants.

In 2012, the federal government stripped medical, vision and dental coverage from refugee claimants. The cuts resulted in no coverage even in emergencies for certain refugee claimants, to basic coverage during urgent events for others.

However, last year, the Federal Court ruled that the overhaul to the program was unconstitutional and the federal government put an interim plan in place allowing refugee claimants to temporarily access extended health care coverage, such as prenatal care and drugs. The government is appealing that decision.

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READ MORE: Feds temporarily expand healthcare for refugee claimants after court ruling

About 40 people gathered in the courtyard of the Dalhousie Medical School to call on the federal government to fully restore health care coverage to all refugee claimants.

Dr. Tim Holland works at the Halifax Transitional Health Clinic for Refugees. The clinic started approximately one year ago to fill a void.

“We got together to try and fill a gap that we had recognized within refugee health care by creating a specialized clinic that addresses the needs of refugee patients in Halifax and Nova Scotia in general,” he said.

Holland said the clinic, which is volunteer-run, is open two days a week and is normally fully booked. He said issues can range from diabetes needs to unmet dental needs to patients who have tumours that require life-saving surgery.

“These patients definitely take more time. The fact they’ve had cuts make it much more difficult to navigate the health care system,” he said.

“One of the main strains of the refugee claimant cuts have made is such that they can’t get their regular health care. A lot of their health care needs go unmet and get worse and worse and eventually they’ll wind up at the emergency department.”

Holland said that ends up costing the health system more in the long run, and he is calling on the feds to rescind the cuts.

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“The Canada I’m proud of is one that’s been known, for one, to deliver health care to the sick regardless of what’s in their wallet and also play in the global world as a global good guy,” he said.

“I think most Nova Scotians would be horribly offended to find out that these people who have dealt with war and famine and have finally arrived to a safe place in Halifax are now finding their health care needs can’t be met.”

Gillian Zubizerreta works in settlement services with the Halifax Refugee Clinic. The clinic provides services to refugee claimants who can’t afford a lawyer.

She said the clinic sees between 40 and 60 new clients per year and they come from countries such as Libya, Cuba and from the Middle East.

“Everyone deserves care and especially some of the most vulnerable in our community. When people don’t get the care they need, they’ll end up in the emergency department anyway. We can’t make the argument that it’s saving taxpayers money because it’s certainly not.”

Zubizerreta said the cuts are unjust since many refugee claimants work and pay taxes and should thus be able to access health care.

Dr. Jonathan Ross is an emergency room physician at the Cobequid Community Health Centre. He urges the federal government to restore benefits to refugee claimants.

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“Patients are more sick, which ultimately happens when primary care is not ideally administered. Anytime patients are truly sick and they present to the emergency room, they’re going to require a significant amount more care, more physician and nursing resources and it does create longer waits and backlogs for everybody,” he said.

“If they do not have the money to pay, physicians and health care will not withhold care. They’ll provide the care and it will be swallowed up ultimately by Canadian taxpayers so we pay one way or another.”

Dr. Timothy Bood, an emergency physician at Dartmouth General Hospital, said he has seen first-hand what the cuts do.

“I’ve seen kids, young kids, who come in with pneumonia. They didn’t have a family doctor. They didn’t have the access they needed. I recall one case where there was a child that came in with pneumonia and thankfully it wasn’t too severe but that’s just one example,” he said.

This is the fourth year protests have taken place and Bood said it all boils down to being humane.

“If the average person knew people who have suffered through so much for so long come to this country and then are denied basic health care, what kind of society is this?”

Global News reached out to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration for a comment but did not receive a response by publication time.


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