Canada’s scrambling to resettle 25,000 Syrians but refugee health care may not be restored for ‘months’

Updated Friday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. with a statement from Citizenship and Immigration.

Thursday morning Meb Rashid saw a woman severely traumatized after years of an abusive relationship.

Before that, an HIV/AIDS patient with dangerously low CD4 count; a pregnant victim of sexual violence.

They all needed treatment. None had coverage.

Rashid, medical director of Toronto’s Crossroads Clinic, has spent much of the past three years devising convoluted workarounds to get sick people care.

Canada’s new Liberal government is scrambling to make good on an election promise to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of the year — a tall order by any measure.

The government reiterated this commitment following a Thursday cabinet meeting but offered no new details on how this will happen.

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Immigration and Refugee Minister John McCallum told CTV he doesn’t know when the government will fully restore health care.

“I don’t know if it will be on the Parliamentary agenda before Christmas,” he said.

WATCH: Immigration Minister John McCallum told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that the Liberal government is still ‘committed to bringing 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of the year.’

“Certain things will happen quickly in a few months, if not a few weeks. And one of those is refugee healthcare. We will restore it,” a Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson said in a Friday afternoon email attributed to McCallum.

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In the meantime, refugees and refugee claimants already in Canada still can’t get health care.

It means sick people get sicker, end up in emergency rooms and cost the system more; it means infectious diseases fester because people without coverage delay treatment.

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And it means resettlement services and health clinics are especially strained even as Canada prepares to welcome a massive influx of newcomers in need.

“To be fair, they’ve been a government for, what? Seven days, now? And I imagine they’re fully overwhelmed,” Rashid said.

“We applaud them for such an ambitious project. But we certainly agree that the [refugee health] cuts should be resolved before they bring people here.”

Last week Citizenship,  reiterated his party’s pledge to restore the Interim Federal Health Program, which the previous Conservative government cut in 2012.

Last year a court called the cuts “cruel and unusual” and ordered their reversal; the Conservatives appealed, arguing the cuts took “gold-plated” health care away from “bogus” refugee claimants.

Coverage still hasn’t been restored. Ontario, Quebec and other provinces stepped in with stopgap health programs of their own but the resulting patchwork has proven so confusing for health practitioners, who are sometimes required to submit the same invoice to multiple Blue Cross departments in order to get paid, that refugees who should be covered still don’t get care.

REFUGEE HEALTH CUTS: Even those who qualify get turned away

That leaves vulnerable people without care when they need it most — bad for sick refugee claimants but also bad for the wider population, Rashid says.

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About five per cent of the people at the clinic where he works have Hepatitis B; as many as 30 per cent have intestinal parasites. Tuberculosis and Hep C are also concerns.

“It doesn’t serve refugees and it doesn’t serve communities receiving refugees,” he said.

“We’ve put together a lot of workarounds. We’ve found ways to get people lab tests and ultrasounds.

“But not everyone comes through our clinic. … You don’t know who you’re missing.”

Because of ongoing confusion around who’s covered for what kind of care and who isn’t, Rashid said, a restoration of full health care would also need to be accompanied by a robust communication strategy to get a clear message across.

If all 25,000 new Syrian refugees are government-sponsored, they should be covered, regardless. If they’re privately sponsored or if they’re brought to Canada on temporary permits, Rashid says, they may not be.

Rashid says he knows both McCallum and Health Minister Jane Philpott. And he’s confident they’re working toward a solution.

“I can’t imagine better people to address the issue of [refugee health] cuts,” he said.
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But “we were hoping, maybe optimistically, that it could be done in the first few days. And it hasn’t. …

“We don’t know what’s taking so long.”

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says bringing a large number of refugees should be seen as an “opportunity”:

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