June 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 06
Health care cuts impact vulnerable refugees
By Aaron Epp | Senior Correspondent
The federal government's plan to reduce health-care coverage for refugees has drawn harsh criticism from people like Jim Mair of North End Sponsorship Team. Photo by Aaron Epp.
WINNIPEG, MBThe federal government's plan to reduce health-care coverage for refugees will make it more difficult for Christian organizations who sponsor newcomers to Canada.
In an effort to reduce overall spending, the federal government is drastically reducing the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), with the changes going into effect on June 30.
In the past, the IHFP has provided refugees with prescription medication and basic dental care and vision care during their first year in Canada. The IFHP assisted them with valuable care not covered by provincial plans.
The decision is outrageous, says Jim Mair of North End Sponsorship Team (NEST), a voluntary association of faith groups based in Winnipeg's North End that sponsors refugees.
"I think everyone was caught off guard by the shock of it all," Mair said. "It will mean having to raise X number of dollars for an emergency health fund for the unknown."
Mair says that since it was established in 1986, NEST has sponsored more than 150 refugees from 18 different countries. He is not aware of a single one who was not cared for under the IFHP.
He points out that depending on where the refugee is coming from, particularly if it is a refugee camp, they may not have seen a doctor or received appropriate health care for quite some time.
Brian Dyck, refugee assistance coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada in Manitoba, is also concerned about the changes.
Dyck says he recently heard of a church in the Maritime provinces who sponsored a family that was healthy. After they arrived, one member of the family developed a rare condition that put him in an intensive care unit for two months. When he got out, he was on an expensive medication regimen covered by the IFHP.
However, Dyck says, with the proposed changes, the family would not be covered.
"Without [the IFHP], that catastrophic illness would have bankrupted the parish that took on the sponsorship," Dyck says.
MCC is currently in the process of informing all of the refugees it has sponsored about the changes the federal government is making.
Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, wrote in a letter to the Winnipeg Free Press that the IFHP now provides supplemental health benefits that average taxpaying Canadians who fund these benefits do not receive. The reforms are being made "to ensure fairness for taxpayers while addressing the need to protect the public health and safety."
"Canadians are very generous people and Canada continues to have the most fair and generous immigration system in the world," Kenney wrote. "But this government does not expect hard-working taxpayers to pay for health benefits for failed refugee claimants that they themselves do not receive."
Dyck points out that refugees are not typical Canadians and they need help.
"They are people who have not had the chance to build up a community of support," Dyck says. "The group to compare them to is people on social assistance … because the IFHP was designed to mirror a provincial or local social assistance program. If any of us goes on social assistance and we need prescription medication, certainly in Manitoba that would be covered for. Because refugees cannot go on social assistance for the first 12 months, they don't have access to that part of the social safety net that we as residents of Canada have."
Mair is unsure as to how the changes will impact NEST. The organization's board will meet in the coming weeks to decide how to proceed.
Mair does agree with Dyck, and he adds that if Kenney believes all Canadians are not receiving the same health care benefits, the federal government should make sure that they do, instead of penalizing refugees.
"We're Canadians," Mair says. "We're supposed to help each other."