Skip to main content

Doctor Philip Berger, chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael's hospital was one of several doctors who protesed the recent decision to cut health care for refugees at the Pan/Parapan Am Day celebration in Toronto at Nathan Phillips Square, July 10, 2012.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is to be credited for his efforts to improve the efficiency of the refugee adjudication process by shortening wait times, hastening removals and other reforms. But taking away health-care benefits from people who are waiting for a hearing or an appeal, as he has also done, is not smart public policy. As long as these claimants remain in Canada, the government should pay for their health care – both for humanitarian reasons, and in the interest of Canadians.

The decision to restrict the Interim Federal Health Program means that refugee claimants from designated countries are no longer able to receive medical care, except in emergencies. Prescriptions for insulin or heart medication are not covered, pregnant women have no access to prenatal care, and the children of asylum seekers cannot receive immunizations.

Those with heart disease or diabetes will be forced to withstand unnecessary suffering, and many could end up in emergency wards. And those with infectious diseases who cannot afford treatment could put the health of others at risk. While some refugees will receive emergency care if their condition is deemed to be a threat to public health, there is confusion over how this is defined.

"Regular, preventive health care is cheaper and more effective than emergency treatment," notes Audrey Macklin, a University of Toronto law professor who specializes in immigration. "The federal government may save money, but only by shifting and increasing the health-care cost to the provinces, the hospitals and ultimately the Canadian public."

Mr. Kenney has justified the change as a way to save money – $100-million over five years – and to deter bogus claimants, but there is little evidence to suggest that claimants choose Canada for the chance of a medical checkup or a month's supply of free insulin.

In fact, only 25,000 people applied for asylum last year – a low number compared with many other countries.

The College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Canadian Nurses Association have protested the policy change. So has Ontario's Health Minister.

Mr. Kenney should reverse this component of what is otherwise a worthy agenda. It only serves to punish people who have the misfortune of ill health, while bringing risk to the public and no real benefit.