Are we saving money yet? Cuts to refugee healthcare hurting all Canadians.

On Canada Day 2012 Jason Kenney, Federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration slashed healthcare benefits for Canada’s refugee claimants and others. Kenney accomplished this by Orders in Council, ducking the usual parliamentary process such matters of national implication warrant.

On June 17th, a year later, Canadian physicians and other healthcare providers will gather nationwide to shine a spotlight on Kenney’s cuts, and their unhealthy impacts on all Canadians.

How have the Minister’s cuts worked out?

Canada’s Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) provided health benefits to refugees making allowed claims. Why did Kenney feel it necessary to “reform” a functioning IFHP that wasn’t broken? The IFHP was hardly a pressing ballot box issue when Kenney acted. Why would he feel it necessary to put our most vulnerable new arrivals in harm’s way to fend for themselves when ill? Why does he ask them to pay down our national deficit with their health, a deficit they had no hand in creating? Many are already fleeing poverty and violence. Many are children and youth new to Canada.

Kenney and his spokespersons repeatedly recite the same reasons, as they recently did in an article by Nicholas Keung (Star, June 9th 2013)

“Canadians have been clear that they do not want illegal immigrants and bogus asylum claimants receiving free, gold-plated health care benefits that are better than those that Canadian taxpayers and seniors receive.”  Said Alexis Pavlich, Kenney’s spokesperson.  Kenney has said the reforms will save taxpayers $100 million over five years.

Really? What Canadians have been clear? How many? What benefits are gold plated? Who is “illegal”? Statements like this must be backed up with data and sources.

It is dubious Kenney’s cuts will save any taxpayer any money. The $100 million he cites translates into 20 million taxpayers each saving a Loonie a year, for 5 years. Imagine knowing your unborn child, a new Canadian citizen, isn’t worth that.

In Ontario, community hospitals and taxpayers are already feeling the financial download of Kenney’s cuts. Toronto is a city defined by more new arrivals than any other (45% of Canada’s annual immigration). Are we surprised to learn in the same Star article that Toronto hospitals are racking up debts in the millions of dollars providing care to persons Kenney cut loose form IFHP?

As the illusionary savings he promised evaporate, some provincial premiers now openly criticize Kenney’s actions, calling his cuts for what they are  — a download of Federal costs onto provincial and municipal taxpayers. The premiers are rightly concerned about the impact the cuts and refugee delays are having on Emergency Rooms, hospital bed shortages, and lengths of hospital stay.

Most refugee claimants denied access to IFHP benefits can’t afford healthcare. At our community volunteer health clinic for the uninsured they arrive, having waited until they are too ill to wait any longer. This includes pregnant women, and ill children. According to the USA Centre for Disease Control, in 2004 a premature low birth weight newborn with brain injury from unattended pregnancy care generates over a million dollars in lifetime costs. Are we saving money yet?

Kenney makes the claim that refugee claimants receive “gold plated healthcare better than Canadians receive”. He talks of “bogus and illegal claimants” taking Canadians for “suckers”. But again, are these accurate facts, or ideology talking? Unfortunately neither Kenney nor his spokespersons have provided the needed evidence. It is time to calm the hyperbole and tell Canadians the facts about IFHP.

All refugee claimants are entitled under Canadian law to make a claim in Canada. This is not “illegal”.  Pre Kenney they all received IFHP healthcare benefits that ended if their claim was rejected. Under IFHP rules doctors have to seek approval for healthcare benefits, benefits Canadians receive without restrictions. These requests can be denied. The ancillary benefits (e.g. vision care) are also available to Canadian residents in similar social assistance plans.

There is no “gold plated” refugee healthcare coverage that trumps what we all receive.

Referring to the impact of the Federal cuts Doctor Meb Rashid of the organization Doctors for Refugee Care and Medical Director of the Crossroad’s Refugee Clinic at Women’s College Hospital commented “It’s an absolute mess”.

We agree. At our Volunteer Clinic that mess is a now a health and financial nightmare for thousands. Kenney turned the IFHP program over to Blue Cross, a private insurer. It is so bureaucratic, almost so unusable that many doctors have declined to sign on, and refugee claimants are afraid to ask.

Others have found more innovative, cost saving and humane solutions. The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Centre, serving a population of 13,000 uninsured newcomers saved 1.9 million dollars in hospital costs per year by providing uninsured newcomers comprehensive, less expensive primary and preventative care in the community. The program freed up beds and reduced wait times. The program worked.

It is a shame that Jason Kenney does not understand this. Or if he does, it is a shame everyone has to pay for his ideologies, while refugee claimants must go without healthcare.  On Monday June 17th, Canadian physicians and allied providers will make our voices heard for healthcare justice, better government, and real cost efficiencies for everyone.


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