Health-care workers and other service providers rallied Wednesday morning outside the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in Toronto to demand that the Ontario government step up to fill the gap left by federal cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program.
The Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) provides temporary health-care coverage to eligible protected persons, refugee claimants and others who do not qualify for provincial or territorial health insurance plans.
Under the previous benefit coverage, the government said the cost of the IFHP grew to $84.6 million in the 2010–2011 fiscal year.
Prior to the changes, the IFHP provided basic health-care coverage, similar to what is provided through a provincial or territorial health insurance plan, as well as coverage for supplemental health-care services, including pharmaceutical care, dentistry, vision care and mobility assistive devices.
But as of July 1 last year, supplemental health-care benefits were eliminated.
The federal government said the cost savings are projected to be about $100 million over the next five years.
On December 14, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney complicated matters more by naming 27 countries he deemed "safe" for the purposes of dealing with refugee claims in Canada.
Refugee claimants from those countries are now only eligible for public safety health-care coverage to to diagnose, prevent or treat a disease posing a risk to public health or to diagnose or treat a condition of public safety concern.
“Everyone coming from one of those countries will be denied all access to health-care,” said Dr. Ritika Goel, an organizer with Health For All Toronto and a frontline health-care provider.
“We feel this is being done is to target Hungary, which is the number one source of refugee claimants for Canada in the last few years. However, we know that Hungary has been documented as having human rights issues by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, specifically targeting the Roma.”
Both Quebec and Manitoba have committed to fill the gap left by the cuts to the IFHP.
“And we want Ontario to do the same,” said Goel.
Although Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews has denounced the cuts, she still hasn’t made a commitment to fill the gap.
Health for All has gathered over 1,000 signatures on a petition that denounces the cuts and wants the province to step up and deliver the necessary financing to restore full benefits to all refugees.
“Refugees who are generally the most vulnerable people in our society should be entitled to those benefits,” said Goel.
“So it’s really a red herring for him (Kenney) to say that we’re providing gold-plated health care for refugees which ordinary Canadians aren’t getting.”
Health for All has numerous documented cases involving refugees who have been turned away from emergency rooms or asked for money up front by their doctors.
And while Health for All isn’t letting the federal government “off the hook”, they feel the province has to be responsible for the health-care of everyone living in Ontario.
There are several reasons why refugees need basic and supplemental health-care coverage, usually reserved for only the poorest of Canadians.
“When you’re running away from your country because of persecution, you’re not necessarily bringing money with you or you might not have those financial assets,” said Goel.
“You don’t have any social supports. Often people can’t speak the language. So we should be providing services until they’re able to get on their feet.”
And they’re not talking years. Usually, it’s only the amount of time it takes to go through the refugee process system. In the past, that process could last up to a year.
Even though Health for All isn’t aware of anyone who’s died as a result of being denied health-care coverage in Ontario, they feel it’s only a matter of time before a life is lost.
It was a frigid Wednesday morning in Toronto with temperatures feeling close to -20 C with the windchill.
Nanky Rai, an organizer with Health for All, tried to get the crowd warmed up by leading them in a few chants.
“Put Ontario on the map,” she said.
“Fill the refugee health gap,” they responded.
Dr. Abeer Majeed, also an organizer with Health for All, said, “They’ve (the Conservatives) completely ignored the experiences of frontline health-care workers who have witnessed the devastation on the ground every day since these cuts came into effect."
A delegation attempted to enter 900 Bay Street to sit down with the Ontario Health Minister but the building was locked down. Only employees were allowed to enter or leave the building.
After a series of negotiations between Toronto Police and Health for All organizers, a four person delegation was allowed inside the entrance to meet with representatives from the Health Ministry.
But the media and the other demonstrators were left out in the cold.
Paul Caulford, a family doctors who works in the volunteer refugee clinic in Scarborough, said he’s seen a three-fold increase in the numbers of refugee claimants seeking health-care at the clinic since the cuts came into effect last July.
“People are going without basic care,” said Caulford. “They’re being turned away by health-care facilities or by physicians who can’t or won’t access the new regulations.”
So the combinations of cuts coupled with the bureaucracy of the new system, said Caulfied, “has made it logistically impossible to mount those barriers.
“It’s an unusable system put in place by our own government.”
And the horror stories are unending.
A woman in her third trimester of pregnancy contracted a potentially lethal condition, but had no health-care coverage to receive treatment.
A man with a large tumor was turned away multiple times from health-care coverage even though he qualified under the federal government’s guidelines.
A young child was denied a chest x-ray and was later found to have pneumonia.
Two young children with multiple hospitalizations for asthma cannot access asthma medication. Instead, they are forced to wait for their next asthma attack before being taken to a hospital emergency department.
A teenager with post-traumatic stress and previous suicide attempts was cut off from essential mental health medication.
A woman late in her pregnancy was turned away by her own family doctor.
“These cases are only the tip of the iceberg,” said Nanky Rai. “There are many more cases that we haven’t heard about.”
It wasn’t just current health-care providers who attended Wednesday’s rally. Students from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto came out to show their support too.
“I just don’t want to be put in a position where I’m going to have to deny health-care fi someone shows up in a potential future office,” said one medical student.
“If we value health-care in Canada, it’s important that it’s not a selective value,” said another. “That we give it to all who exist within our borders.”
“When you deny people basic primary and preventative care, it ends up being much more expensive for the system overall,” said a third.
At the foot of the walkway leading up to the building, Health for All set up a display with a form completely covered in a white sheet lying on a stretcher. Beside the stretcher lay two bouquets of flowers each containing a dozen red, long stemmed roses.
In front, a sign read “Ontario Fill The Gap Before A Life Is Lost.”