It's not often that a bad piece of policy dreamed up by Ottawa actually ends up endangering lives. But on Friday, the Federal Court found that cuts to refugee health care have accomplished exactly that, targeting vulnerable people in a way so harmful that Justice Anne Mactavish found it constitutes "cruel and unusual treatment." The judge found that "lives are being put at risk." The government now has exactly four months to restore refugee health care. It also has the option of appealing to a higher court. We're not sure we can agree with the judge's expansive interpretation of the court's power to set government policy. But nobody can disagree that this government policy was a very bad idea.
Ottawa slashed medical benefits for newcomers in 2012, leaving most immigrants with basic, essential health care, but without supplements such as vision and dental care. However, rejected refugee claimants – and claimants from countries the government deems safe – are eligible for care only under the most dire of circumstances, namely when they pose a threat to public health.
The problems with the federal cuts to refugee health care begin with the rationale used by government to introduce them in the first place: cost, deterring false refugee claims and equity – the idea that refugees are receiving better health care than Canadians. The court found the government wrong on all counts.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander defended the cuts by saying they would save taxpayers $100-million over five years. The calculation was always suspect. It never factored in hidden costs, such as those incurred by neglecting certain health conditions as a result of no coverage. Mr. Alexander consistently argued that any refugee with a serious illness could still turn to hospital emergency rooms, as if that came at no cost. The government also argued the cuts would reduce the number of bogus refugees coming to Canada simply to access the country's health care. Ottawa's decision to penalize potential offenders by depriving every claimant in that category of health care is a kind of collective punishment. A court of law presumes innocence until guilt is proven. When it comes to refugee claimants, Ottawa should at least extend the same benefit of the doubt.
The Federal Court ruling reverses the government's dumb cuts to refugee health care. There's a legitimate concern about bogus refugee claimants abusing the system. This health care policy, a weapon that has now come back to wound its creator, was never the right way to deal with the problem.