The Liberal government has restored refugee health-care benefits cut by the previous Conservative government.
At a joint announcement Thursday, Immigration Minister John McCallum and Health Minister Jane Philpott said the Interim Federal Health Program, which provides health-care coverage for asylum claimants and refugees, will be fully restored to pre-2012 levels.
"All refugee claimants and refugees will now be covered," Mr. McCallum told reporters in Ottawa.
The Conservative government scaled back refugee health-care benefits in 2012, arguing that the cuts would deter "bogus" refugees from coming to Canada and save taxpayers money. The cuts included an end to almost all supplemental health-care benefits and to medical coverage for refugee claimants, except when there was a public health concern.
The Federal Court eventually found that the changes were unconstitutional and ordered the government to reinstate the benefits, leading the Conservatives to restore some. The Tory government launched an appeal of the court's decision, which the Liberals eventually dropped.
Before 2012, refugee claimants had their health-care costs covered by the federal government until their application for status was decided or they became eligible for provincial health-care coverage.
The health-care benefits will be fully restored as of April 1, according to Mr. McCallum. The coverage will include hospital and physician services, while coverage for supplemental services, such as vision, urgent dental care and prescription drugs, will be similar to what provinces and territories provide to Canadians on social assistance.
The government's announcement comes months after it committed to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, who were already eligible for health-care coverage in Canada. An exemption in the 2012 law ensures that refugees being settled as a "result of a public policy or humanitarian and compassionate considerations on the minister's own initiative" receive full access to health-care benefits.
The government also announced an expansion of the program to cover certain services for refugees who have been identified for resettlement before they come to Canada. Starting April 1, 2017, those services will include coverage of the immigration medical examination, pre-departure vaccinations, services to manage disease outbreaks in refugee camps and medical support during travel to Canada.
Cindy Forbes, president of the Canadian Medical Association, applauded the new provision. "Knowing that the patient's immunization status has been reviewed and they are up to date when they arrive, that's huge," Dr. Forbes told The Globe and Mail.
However, NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan questioned why some have to wait for coverage. "It begs the question why the Liberals are leaving all the refugees who are coming before April, 2017, to cover their own medical examination, especially when they are covering it for the Syrian refugees," Ms. Kwan said in a statement.
The health ministers of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia commended the federal government's decision on Thursday. In a statement, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said the move will help provinces fill the funding gap: "Since the previous Conservative government made the decision to slash health benefits to refugees, Ontario and other provinces have stepped forward and funded that federal responsibility."
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), said her organization welcomes the announcement, but is interested in the fine print. For instance, the CCR would like to see the new rules clearly laid out in law, because it found the 2012 changes unclear.
"There wasn't any text that you could easily go to and say, 'Okay, this is who is going to be covered,'" Ms. Dench said. "But there were certain categories of people that we knew were excluded, such as people whose claim was found to be not eligible."