Federal Cuts Block Access to Healthcare for Toronto Refugees
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Federal Cuts Block Access to Healthcare for Toronto Refugees

Advocates say a cut to an OHIP-like federal program is putting the well-being of refugees at risk.

Photo by DdotG, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by DdotG, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Vulnerable woman are being forced to choose between healthcare and food, and are accessing health services dangerously late, the executive director of a women’s clinic has warned.

Notisha Massaquoi, who heads up Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, a Toronto community health centre, blames the situation on federal cuts to benefits for refugees. Massaquoi said the issue is a major concern for the downtown clinic she has worked at for almost 20 years.

“If you are a refugee to Canada, in the past you had healthcare paid for. Now, this is not the case. Women are not accessing healthcare, and when they are it is much later than it should be,” she said.

“From our point of view, we have a group of clients who were covered [with an OHIP-like benefit] but now are not, they are caught in the system.”

Massaquoi said the clinic deals with women who are having to make decisions between healthcare, food, and housing.

“So you get clients who not only need healthcare but other resources too. We are talking about a very vulnerable population, and the government is not saving any significant amount of money. It’s a very conservative view to say we do not want to use tax dollars to provide this coverage, and it’s a very dangerous conversation not to be having.”

The problem stems from cuts made last year to the the Interim Federal Health Program, which paid for basic health care for refugee claimants until they were either removed from the country or became eligible for provincial health care.

There are two major classes of refugees: government sponsored, and privately sponsored. (The former receive support from the government, while the latter get help from private individuals or organizations.) Government-sponsored refugees still qualify for full federal health benefits, including vision and dental care. Privately sponsored claimants, meanwhile, have had their benefits reduced. The cuts are expected to save the federal government about $100 million over the course of five years.

The move has been widely criticized by doctors, campaigners and lawyers working in the sector. The government is standing firm, however, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s press secretary Alexis Pavlich told Torontoist that “genuine refugees” continue to receive comprehensive coverage.

“Canadians will no longer fund free dental care, free eye care, and free supplementary prescriptions for illegal immigrants and bogus refugees,” she said.

“The fact is that the majority of asylum claims made in Canada are unfounded,” she added. “Two-thirds of all asylum claims are either abandoned or withdrawn by the claimants themselves, or rejected by the independent Immigration and Refugee Board.”

According to Massaquoi, the women her clinic treats may have suffered rape, trauma, or abuse, and may have reproductive problems. “They are coming to us when things are quite serious. We are talking about women who have long-term health issues that have gone untreated, stress-related things such as heart disease, high blood pressure, infections, parasitic infections from drinking bad water.” The clinic deals predominantly with four minority groups: Latin American, African, Caribbean, and South West Asian women.

“We treat them, of course, but if we need to refer them to a specialist, they don’t have the money for that. Even for the delivery of babies now—for a very basic delivery, with no epidural, no weekend or evening delivery, without any complications—it costs $4,000. That would put a family into years of debt.”

Peter Showler, co-chair of the advocacy committee of the Canadian Association of Refugee Laws (CARL), rejected the government’s claim that cuts only target “fraudulent” refugees, calling it “resoundingly false.”

“Despite the disinformation of the government, refugee claimants are legally here in Canada seeking protection from persecution,” he said.

“After the cuts were announced, the government ignored all the rational arguments from doctors, lawyers, policymakers, and provincial governments for why the cuts were wrong in every sense: medically, economically, morally, and finally, legally.”

Showler, who believes the cuts are inconsistent with Canada’s international legal obligations, said court action against the government is proceeding.

CORRECTION: July 10, 2013, 3:50 PM This post originally said, incorrectly, that privately sponsored refugee claimants no longer qualify for benefits under the Interim Federal Health Program. In fact, their benefits have been reduced, not eliminated.