By Jane Pritchard, member of Toronto United Mennonite Church and family physician who has cared for refugees for the past 22 years in her private medical practice.
On April 25, 2012, via an Order in Council, the Hon. Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, significantly restricted access of refugees to health care.
I firmly believe that these actions are morally wrong, demonizing refugees as being primarily “bogus” and declaring that certain countries of origin can never produce refugees.
But purely from a public health perspective, these changes are unsound policy.
Who is most at risk of a life-threatening condition in any given short period of time? Pregnant women and their infants.
It is no solution to deny pregnant women from, say, Hungary, with all the inequities they face, prenatal care because they are from “a designated country of origin.” They need prenatal care, safe delivery, and their babies need access to medical care and immunizations.
Otherwise they will wait until fear of death is greater than fear of an unknown hospital bill, and then they’ll end up in our emergency departments, paid for by the provinces and territories; or they will suffer terrible consequences, even death, at home.
On May 11th, at the office of Toronto MP Joe Oliver, a small group of physicians demonstrated to focus public attention on the dire consequences to health that could result from these changes. This was the beginning of “Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care” (CDRC), a broad-based coalition of physicians across the country trying to preserve healthcare services for our patients and those yet to come.
Perhaps due in part to our public outcry, Minister Kenney did make changes to the original Order in Council to exempt government-sponsored refugees from the cuts. The changes, however, appeared overnight on a government website just before the July long weekend, and there was never any direct admission of a retraction.
Instead what was announced was “expanded health services,” a new category allowing government-sponsored refugees access to medications, basic dental procedures, vision and special devices.
This was precisely what they received before the changes.
The loss of this coverage would have raised the embarrassing spectre of refugees in remote UNHCR camps losing their access to medications needed to treat their diabetes, depression, hypertension, and heart disease when they agreed to be sponsored by the Canadian government.
Prior to the government’s “clarification” on June 30, it was plainly evident on the government website what the changes were going to mean for each category of refugee, and this was apparently acceptable because refugees should not get gold plated health care plans that Canadians cannot afford.
In fact, what we were and still are asking to restore is access to the basic services all Canadians on social assistance receive across the country.
Refugees come here with no money, traumatized, and usually needing to learn a new language to work.
What is the point of denying their children glasses so they can attend school?
I had an opportunity to present a handwritten letter to Minister Kenney two weeks ago after a church celebration in Toronto for the safe arrival of refugees who had been persecuted for their Christian faith.
I expressed my appreciation for his intervention in the case of these particular refugees, and urged him to use the power invested in him by the people of Canada, and by God, to restore access to health care for all refugee claimants. I quoted Deuteronomy 24:17: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice.” It felt like a respectful encounter.
But much more is needed.
Physicians can take the issue only so far. To further influence the Minister and the government, citizens across the country must make their views known, loudly and often.
We can’t do it alone.
Will you write letters to Minister Kenney, your MP, and to Prime Minister Harper? To your local newspaper?
So-called “bogus” refugees include pregnant women, babies, and children.