Today doctors across the country took action against proposed cuts to refugee health. There were occupations of Tory offices in Winnipeg and Toronto, a rally in Ottawa and press conferences in other cities.

On April 25, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program. These cuts, which are scheduled to take effect on June 30, are cruel, costly and a threat to public health. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) will have the following impact: 

— Create a two-tier system of refugee care in Canada, discriminating between refugee claimants on the basis of their country of origin.

— Deny necessary medical care on  arrival in Canada to resettled refugees or accepted refugee claimants with acute health needs.

— Institutionalize gender discrimination.

— Deny long-term, essential medical coverage to individuals who are living in Canada in limbo.

— Offload costs to provinces.

As CCR President Wanda Yamamoto summarized, “Thousands of people now receiving medication for everything from epilepsy and childhood respiratory illnesses to cancer and AIDS will no longer have access as of 30 June 2012. Will it take some deaths for the government to change its mind?”

Bogus arguments

The Tories justify the cuts by claiming that they will promote fairness, save money and protect public health. But these arguments are bogus. Denying basic and medically necessary health care for people who have been forced to leave their countries to escape war, rape, torture and persecution is not fair, it is inhumane.

Furthermore, as the CCR points out, “the government’s own figures show that the per capita cost for refugee claimants under the IFHP is only about 10 per cent of the average per capita cost for Canadians.” Refugees are not a drain on the system, and depriving of them of basic health care needs will not save money. Instead, denying people cost-effective preventive care will force them to suffer complications of untreated conditions, which is costly and a threat to public health.

As infectious disease specialist Dr. Mark Tyndall wrote, “there is not a health economist in the world who would tell you that restricting primary and preventive care is a cost saver. In fact, waiting until people require urgent care before intervening is contrary to everything we know about sound health economics. Does Immigration Minister Jason Kenney really believe that we shouldn’t treat someone’s high blood pressure, diabetes, depression or arthritis or offer pre-natal care to expectant mothers?”

The real purpose of these cuts are to scapegoat refugees for the austerity agenda. Just a few months ago the Harper government announced $21 billion in cuts to Medicare, part of a prescription for privatization

To distract from that, they are blaming the very modest $84 million IFHP. As Dr. Tyndall wrote, “It is reprehensible that Minister Kenney is pitting Canadians who are dissatisfied with their own medical coverage, against refugees, as depicted in a shameless petition posted on his official website.”  

Cutting refugee health is the sharp end of the wedge to cutting public health care. According to Michael McBane from the Canadian Health Coalition, “The dismantling of one of the oldest parts of Canada’s public healthcare system –health care for displaced persons who arrived in Canada following World War II — is symptomatic of the Harper government’s approach to health care. ‘Cut and run’ is their motto and changing the hearts of Canadians from compassion to contempt is their goal.” This goal is also being pursued by criminalizing refugees with Bill C-4 and Bill C-31

A broad coalition of groups — migrant justice groups, labour and student groups, health and health care provider groups — will be necessary to stop these harmful cuts to refugee health. 

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who like Virchow believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at,...