OTTAWA – The federal Liberals are ripping up a patchwork system of health-care coverage for newly arrived refugees and those seeking refugee status in favour of blanket coverage for all, beginning in April.
Starting in 2017, they’ll also extend coverage to certain refugees before they even arrive in Canada, including picking up the tab for the medical exams they need to pass in order to move here.
“This will help refugees, it will help health-care providers, it will help Canadians,” Health Minister Jane Philpott said Thursday.
The changes effectively reverse the previous Conservative government’s 2012 overhaul of the interim federal health program, which covers health care and drug costs for refugees and refugee claimants until they can get access to provincial coverage.
Prior to 2012, a person’s refugee status or medical condition had no bearing on what the federal government would pay for. Citing a need to save money and stop the abuse of the system, the Tories instituted a program that allocated coverage based on factors ranging from a refugee’s country of origin to what conditions needed treatment.
Doctors reported the fallout as being everything from pregnant women denied prenatal care to children losing access to asthma medications. One group challenged the move, prompting a scathing 2014 decision from the Federal Court that the new program amounted to “cruel and unusual” treatment and put people’s lives in danger. It forced the government to reinstate some, but not all of the benefits, though the Conservatives continued to appeal.
The system grew so complex that some doctors gave up treating refugees altogether, said Dr. Meb Rashid, a Toronto physician who was involved in the court case. At the same time, it also prevented people from seeking out care altogether, he said.
“Part of it was because people were underinsured and part of it was nobody understood the system,” he said.
During the election campaign, the Liberals promised to restore the program in its entirety. They took the first steps by dropping the court case and granting full coverage to all the Syrian refugees who were coming to Canada as part of the Liberal resettlement program. Under the Conservative changes, only those refugees being resettled by the government directly had access to extended benefits and those with private sponsors only had limited coverage.
Ottawa doctor Doug Gruner, who works with newly arrived refugees, said the changes announced by the Liberals will make a substantive difference.
“This is huge in the sense that now we can communicate to our colleagues – ‘Look, everyone has coverage, there should be no reasons not to see refugees,’ no matter what class of refugee we are talking about,” he said.
“So that’s a big thing to me – the clarity, the transparency of what this coverage entails. It means refugees are able to access doctor visits, able to actually follow through on a treatment plan.”
Immigration Minister John McCallum said the restoring the old system will cost an additional $5.9 million a year; extending the program will cost $5.6 million beginning in 2017. But he said the money is covered by the existing budget for the program of $51 million annually.
In the wake of the Conservative cuts, several provinces stepped forward to pick up the tabs on their own. One of them, Ontario, estimates it spent $2 million providing the extra care.