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Cuts to refugee health-care continue to endanger lives

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A year later, health-care professionals still can’t fathom the senseless cuts the Conservative government made to refugee health-care.

“I had a patient whose HIV I could treat even though it was stable,” said Dr. Hasan Sheikh, a family medicine resident at the University of Toronto. 

“But I could do nothing to address the post-traumatic stress disorder that was having a much bigger impact on her ability to be healthy and contribute to society.”

Click here to see more photos from the rally.

On Monday, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care organized a National Day of Action to urge the federal government to rescind last year’s cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP).

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.

As of July 1, 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.

Now anyone coming from one of those countries is denied all access to health-care.

“I was never taught (in medical school) to act as an agent of the government, holding people’s health- care hostage as a means of influencing immigration policy,” said Sheikh, at the Toronto Day of Action across the street from the Canadian Citizenship and Immigration office on St. Clair Avenue east.

“That is not my job.”

Medical residents like Sheikh have joined doctors, nurses, social workers, mid-wives, dentists, pharmacists and others to stand up against these “unfair and dangerous” cuts, calling for a complete reversal to the cuts to the IFHP.

With demonstrations in 17 cities across the country and supporters from all over the world, the campaign to reverse the cuts has grown significantly over the last 12 months.

“We are dismayed, ashamed and angry at the cuts to health-care for refugees,” said Dr. Vincent Lam, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto.

Cuts that denied essential health-care services to refugees.

“We feel that this is deeply wrong.”

For Lam, this issue is very personal. His family came to Canada during the Vietnam war.

“Many people who came from that part of the world were not as fortunate as I was,” said Lam. 

Following the end of the Vietnam war, refugees fled the country. “The world was horrified and shocked by the plight of boat people.”

Between 1975 and 1985, over 110,000 Vietnamese refugees re-settled in Canada.

“Today they and their children are productive and fully integrated members of Canadian society.” said Lam.

“Since then, people from every part of the world have been forced to flee their homes for fear of persecution.”

Since 1957, the Canadian government has offered refugees the same health-care as permanent residents.

“And that is no longer the case,” he said. 

Yet, like everyone else, refugees have health-care needs that must be dealt with.

“Their needs are screaming,” said Dr. Katherine Rouleau, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto.

“They are urgent. They are now. And we have the tools to answer these needs. We do not have a right to sit back and ignore them.”

Like the woman who arrived in Canada pregnant but couldn’t get adequate testing to monitor her pregnancy. Or the man with congestive heart failure discharged home without the necessary home care followup.

And the two children with severe asthma who couldn’t get the medications they require to treat their illness.

“This policy is flawed, mean spirited and it’s cruel,” said Dr. Meb Rashid, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto.

One year ago, doctors told Minister Kenney the same thing.

“We have now seen the consequences.”

That’s left health-care professionals no choice but to continue to demand that the federal government reverse the cuts.

“The Conservative government has swept away, ended the fairness and compassion of Canada’s refugee health-care program,” said Dr. Philip Berger, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto.

“Under a diamond studded cover of propaganda. A taxpayer funded disinformation campaign filled with fabrications, misleading both the public and parliament. To spread falsehoods and distortions about refugee health-care.”

On Monday, Berger attempted to set the record straight.

He said refugees never received more coverage than people on welfare and seniors have always been given much more government supports and benefits than refugees.

“That is the truth,” said Berger. “And it’s time for the government to start telling the truth.”

And start listening to the stories of health-care professionals like Dr Tatiana Freire-Lizama, OB/GYN at the University of Toronto, who specializes in Maternal-Fetal Medicine and takes care of women with complicated pregnancies.

Rosa (not her real name), one of Dr. Freire-Lizama’s patients, came from a poor and drug-affected area of Latin America.

She had 15 siblings, but only seven are still alive. And only Rosa and one other sister have not been forced into prostitution. 

Rosa fled to Canada seeking safety. But last year, Rosa’s health-care coverage was revoked. At the time, she was 16 weeks pregnant.

“But she has diabetes and couldn’t afford her insulin,” said Freire-Lizama. “She even considered returning to her country despite threats of violence.”

Rosa knew she needed to go to her medical appointments, but had no idea how she would pay the bills.

Fortunately, many health-care workers didn’t submit their invoices. Instead, they volunteered their time and skills to care for Rosa during her pregnancy.

Thanks to committed health-care professionals, Rosa now has a healthy baby girl.

“Our Canadian government saved Canadian taxpayers nothing,” she said. 

“They downloaded the cost of her care to our hospital, our ultrasound department, the nurses, doctors (and others) because it would have inhumane to treat her any other way.”

But due to their practical fears and insecurities, refugees cannot speak for themselves.

“So we must speak up for them,” said Dr Sandy Buchman, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto and a Past President of the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Canadian College of Family Physicians.

Over a year ago, the Board of Directors of the Canadian College passed a resolution opposing the federal government’s decision to cancel supplemental health-care coverage for refugee claimants under the IFHP.

“We wrote Jason Kenney three times requesting a meeting to share our concerns,” said Buchman.

“And we have been ignored. Not one cordial response.”

In spite of being brushed off by Minister Kenney, health-care professionals have vowed to keep up the fight until the cuts are reversed.

“These cuts are unjust, immoral and unlawful,” said Vanessa Wright, Nurse Practitioner Crossroads Clinic and spokesperson for the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO).

“We will continue to support a compassionate society that we call Canada that does not ignore the health of people who deserve our support.”

People who teach us about violence, persecution and resilience.

“We will not go Jason Kenney,” said Angela Robertson, Executive Director of Central Toronto Community Health Centres.

“You will.”

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