Ottawa doctors decry cuts to refugee health benefits

OTTAWA – Dozens of doctors wearing white coats descended on Parliament Hill on Friday to protest cuts to federal health-care benefits for some of their most vulnerable patients – refugees.

As part of sweeping set of reforms to Canada’s refugee system, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently announced he would eliminate coverage of supplemental health benefits like vision care, dental work and drug costs for refugees.

Using words like insane, disgusting and mean-spirited, doctors and community health workers stood on the lawn of Parliament and warned the cuts would hurt refugees, compromise public health and increase health-care costs.

“There are a lot of things that you may question about the government, but to me this really crossed the line,” said Dr. Mark Tyndall, chief of infectious diseases at the Ottawa Hospital.

SOUNDOFF: Do you think refugees should receive a year of health-care benefits, which include those not available for average Canadians like dental and vision care?

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Refugees are currently offered up to two years of supplemental benefits that help them get glasses, dental work and drugs.

Without the benefits, Tyndall said refugees won’t be able to get the drugs they need to treat conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or pneumonia.

Refugees will still receive basic health coverage, comparable to provincial programs, and medication and immunizations will be provided in cases where there is a risk to public health. The government expects the cuts will save taxpayers $100 million over five years.

Tyndall disagrees: “It will be offloaded to emergency rooms to deal with these things and it makes no sense at all … It’ll cost five times that much if we rely on emergency rooms and hospitals.”

Costs won’t be the only thing that spikes after the cuts are made, according to Tyndall, who says disease rates will increase as well.

“This is the worst thing you can do for public safety,” he said. “If you are really concerned that someone from Africa or Asia is going to spread tuberculosis the worst thing you can do is isolate them from health care.”

The federal government defends the cuts, saying it will discourage unfounded refugee claims and that it is unfair to ask Canadians to foot the bill for benefits more generous than those they are entitled to.

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Inside the House of Commons, Kenney’s Parliamentary Secretary, Rick Dykstra, shot back at NDP accusations that the Conservatives were targeting vulnerable families in the name of deterring human smuggling and immigration fraud.

“(Refugees) should get and deserve an equal health-care system, the exact same treatment, the same kind of medicare that is offered across this country. If you think that they deserve more than every Canadian in this country, why don’t you stand up in the House and acknowledge that,” Dykstra said.

Arguing fairness simply doesn’t make sense, according to Rebecca Warmington, a first-year medical student at the University of Ottawa.

Warmington works with refugees at the Healthcare Advocacy for Refugees Program, where she takes the medical histories of new refugees.

“It’s easy to see that side of the argument, but people are coming to the country with much more complex concerns than the average Canada,” she said. “One year of emergency may be slightly more than the average Canadian, but the average Canadian doesn’t have the same problems or the extent of dental work that needs to be done.”

Dr. Parisa Rezaiefar says the cuts don’t just deny refugees a trip to the dentist, they deny them the chance to integrate into Canadian society.

“If their basic needs aren’t met it is very difficult for them to become members of society because they are preoccupied with meeting their basic needs,” said the doctor who now practices at Ottawa’s Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre.

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As a former refugee from Iran, Rezaiefar knows just how important things like health benefits can be in helping newcomers find a place in Canada. She said Canada’s generosity helped her learn French and English and finish medical school – skills she now uses to give back to Canadian society.

The changes are scheduled to take effect on June 30, 2012, and will apply to all current beneficiaries and new applicants.