by Yolande Cole
Medical workers and members of the public concerned about recent cuts to refugee health-care services stood outside St. Paul’s Hospital Thursday (August 2) evening in the first of what they say will be bi-weekly vigils against the changes.
Organizer Ferma Ravn-Greenway, a social worker who deals frequently with refugees, said she’s worried about the impact of reforms to the Interim Federal Health Program that came into effect on June 30.
The changes reduced health-care benefits for some categories of refugees, including coverage of prescription drugs and some medical services.
“We’re worried about how our clients will be able to access medication and access primary health care and lab tests without having this coverage,” said Ravn-Greenway. “I work with people who would fall into the category of not having coverage anymore, and so because of that I’m really concerned.”
“A lot of people when they’re new to Canada as refugees, they just don’t have the finances to be able to pay for medication,” she added. “People come here with very poor health because of whatever happened in their home country that made them have to come to Canada in the first place.”
The rally outside St. Paul’s Hospital was organized by Sanctuary Health, a group of health-care workers, former refugees and concerned members of the public that was formed recently in opposition to reforms to Canada’s refugee system.
Ravn-Greenway said the group plans to hold vigils and rallies in front of other health-care centres around the Lower Mainland over the coming weeks to draw attention to the issue among the public and the health-care sector.
“A lot of people who work in health care don’t know about what’s going on,” she said. “People still don’t know how to handle situations that are coming up with clients and patients who are affected by the cuts.”
While opponents said the changes to the federal program initially appeared to impact even government-assisted refugees, the government has since said that group of claimants will not be affected by the reforms.
According to a Citizenship and Immigration Canada summary of benefits for refugees under the Interim Federal Health Program, government-assisted refugees will continue to receive expanded health-care coverage and supplemental benefits, including prescription medications.
Other groups, such as some privately sponsored refugees and those whose claims have been accepted, will receive health-care coverage for services of an urgent or essential nature, and will have prescriptions covered only if they are being treated for a condition posing a risk to public safety.
Ravn-Greenway said the changes still leave many refugees without access to the care they need.
“It does make a difference for the categories of refugees that they have allowed to access interim federal health coverage, but there are still different categories of refugees who cannot access this health coverage, and so for instance, people who claim refugee status from within Canada, they don’t have that coverage, and so we’re asking for that coverage to be implemented once again,” she said.
The social worker noted that under the new policy, refugees who have their claims denied are not covered for treatment of health emergencies.
“If they had a heart attack and went to the emergency room but weren’t able to pay the cost of the emergency room visit, they right now would be just sent away,” she said.
When the federal government announced the changes to the health program in April, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney indicated the reform was intended to remove an incentive for people who may be considering filing an unfounded refugee claim in Canada.
The changes to the program are projected to save about $100 million over the next five years.