Refugee health care cuts challenged by doctors, lawyers

Feb 26, 2013 | News

Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, has dismissed a court challenge to the Interim Federal Health Program as a case by "militant leftists". COURTESY: MINISTRY OF CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION

Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, has dismissed a court challenge to the Interim Federal Health Program as a case by “militant leftists”. COURTESY: MINISTRY OF CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION

By Sharon Tindyebwa

The federal government’s refugee health care policy violates the Charter and contravenes international obligations, said a group of lawyers and doctors in a court case launched this week.

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and three patients brought forward the court challenge in the Federal Court of Canada on Monday asking the court to deem cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program illegal and unconstitutional.

In June 2012, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration eliminated health care coverage for refugees whose claims are rejected and refugee claimants who come from countries designated as safe.

Philip Berger, one of the doctors in the group, said the Harper government’s policy unfairly punishes “refugee claimants who are legally here lawfully within our borders,” but “who are from so-called safe countries.”

Berger told Humber News that this group of refugees “who would have been previously covered for health insurance while awaiting their hearing get virtually no health coverage of any kind unless they are a threat to public health or public safety.”

Other refugees who no longer receive coverage are those “who have been unsuccessful on their legal claim but can’t be deported because there’s a moratorium on deporting anybody to those countries because they are considered too unsafe,” said Berger.

Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship and immigration, dismissed the court challenge as a ridiculous case launched by “militant leftists,” according to the Globe and Mail on Monday.

“Canadian taxpayers have no obligation to provide gold-plated health insurance to illegal immigrants who have been deemed by our fair and generous legal system not to be refugees,” Kenney was quoted in a Toronto Star report.

Kenney’s argument was “completely bogus,” Berger said.

“When people are fleeing for their safety, they are not thinking about health care systems in the country they’re seeking safety and refuge,” he said.

“Secondly, if the government wants to set down policies that severely restrict  people’s ability to come to Canada, they should do it through immigration laws, not through using health care and doctors,” Berger added.

Some advocacy groups see changes to refugee health care as part of a bigger and more problematic government policy.

“I think one thing in particular we’ve been saying over and over again is that these cuts to the health program are just one in an onslaught to changes in the Canadian immigration system,” said Nanky Rai, a community organizer with Health For All, a grass roots organization based in Toronto.

“We cannot speak about the interim federal health cuts without talking about Bill C-31 as the bill that granted Jason Kenney the arbitrary authority to designate any country as safe,” said Rai.

One of the case histories listed by the doctors and lawyers in the court application is a failed refugee claimant who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2012 and has no coverage for his hospital treatment. The man was from Mexico, a country deemed safe by Ottawa.

Berger said the government should have consulted with health care professionals before making changes to the interim health care program.

“Minister Kenney has shown a measure of contempt towards the leadership of the health professionals of Canada that has never been shown before,” he said. “We have asked for meetings with him, no response.”

Rai said the court challenge was a “great strategy” in trying to effect a reversal of the cuts.

“I think we have to realize that we have to connect the legal strategy and the lobbying strategy, and direct action and mass movement building around these issues,” she said.

Neither Kenney nor his office was available for comment.