By: Stephen Chartrand- Specialty News Editor
On Jan. 1, the Ontario provincial government introduced a new health-care program that will provide primary care and emergency hospital services, as well as medication coverage, to refugee claimants – regardless of the claimants’ status according to some critics. The matter has led to a row between Chris Alexander, the federal government’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister and Ontario’s Health Minister Deb Matthews.
After the federal government approved funding cuts in December 2012 to the Interim Health Program, under the Ontario Health Act, Ontario’s Temporary Health Program restored access to some of those benefits.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander publicly criticised the policy: “I’ve expressed our government’s disappointment with the Ontario government’s recent decision to reinstate health-care benefits to all asylum seekers and even rejected refugee claimants,” Mr. Alexander said.
At a press conference held at Pearson International Airport, the Minister told reporters Ontario’s “decision is irresponsible as it makes Canada and Ontario in particular, a magnet for bogus asylum seekers.”
The federal government’s 2012 asylum system reforms removed 37 countries from the government’s Designated Country of Origin (DCO) list – otherwise stable countries observant of human rights were removed.
The purpose of the federal government’s cuts, according to Minister Alexander, was to streamline the claims process and to reduce the risk of people systematically abusing or taking advantage of Canada’s asylum system.
The Minister told reporters that the number of claims produced by otherwise safe countries dropped by 87%. “I want to make this point very clear,” he said, “the beneficiaries of these reforms are yes, Canadian taxpayers, but mostly and overwhelmingly [are] genuine refugees.”
Responding to Mr. Alexander on the CBC’s As it Happens, Ontario’s Health Minister Deb Matthews, said the cuts by the federal government created significant problems for health-care providers in communities with large refugee populations.
“Doctors were forced to ask questions like ‘what country did you come from, when did you arrive, what stage are you in your claims process.’ It was very, very difficult for providers to figure out who was covered and who wasn’t,” Matthews said.
Although Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia have similar programs, the new policy is likely to be costly, as 48,900, or 55% of all refugee claimants in Canada reside in Ontario.
In providing and administering these new benefits, costs will approximate to $20 million per year, according to Matthews, who intends to send the bill straight to Ottawa. “The federal government has a very clear responsibility to provide care to refugees … We will not just absorb it and pretend that it’s our responsibility, because it’s not. I will annually deliver bills to the federal government,” Matthews said.
The federal Minister charged Ontario’s refugee health-care policy as ‘irresponsible’ and an “incentive for people to come here who are not genuinely refugees [and] not genuinely persecuted,” Mr. Alexander said.
Matthews defended the Ontario government’s decision, saying the program only provides coverage “to people who are in the process of making that refugee claim. Once the deportation date has passed, we are not covering them,” and is not an open-door policy she said. The Ontario Health Minister stated further that the emergency and primary care services are an exception for children and pregnant women only.
“Even the most cold-hearted person,” Matthews said, “would say the right thing for the system is to clean [it] up and have a program to cover the people in that stage of the refugee process.”
Mr. Alexander, however, was not convinced, saying “the sooner the Ontario government gets serious about protecting Ontario taxpayers and stops undermining the success of our national refugee reforms, the better and fairer it will be for all Canadians, including legal immigrants and genuine refugees.”
Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have launched a legal challenge against the federal government’s cuts before Justice Anne Mactavish.
A spokesman for Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, Dr. Philip Berger, said “we have witnessed the devastating impact of these cuts on the frontlines and fear the federal government’s ongoing pig-headedness could lead to tragic consequences.”
Canadian doctors have also challenged the federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister to a public debate this week, demanding that Mr. Alexander face the public and justify his government’s policy and funding cuts. to refugee health care.
Dr. Meb Rashid, Medical Director of the Crossroads Clinic at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, said Monday in a press release that “all we want is a chance to respectfully and rationally discuss the federal government’s refugee health policy.”
Dr. Philip Berger is also demanding a public audience with the Minister, saying in the same press release that “if the Minister is so confident in the righteousness of his position he will accept our challenge for a public debate and honest discussion on the facts.”
Government lawyers are claiming that the provincial health-care programs for refugee claimants, including those programs providing primary care and emergency care services, are sufficient. But as Justice Mactavish asks, “is it humane to put people through [this]?”