Expert addresses impact of cuts to refugee health program

Last Wednesday, psychologist, legal scholar, and anthropologist Janet Cleveland spoke on the impact of federal cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) on refugees. The event was a Brown Bag Seminar hosted by McGill’s Faculty of Law.

The policy came into effect on June 30, 2012. Cleveland said it limits health care coverage for approximately 20,000 refugee claimants in Canada.

“A [refugee is a] person who flees to another country and asks for asylum because he or she has serious reason to fear that, if sent back to his or her country of origin, he orshe would be persecuted because of his or her ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, political opinions or similar reasons,” she said.

“The current [refugee health care] situation in practice is chaotic,” Cleveland said. “Many clinics and hospitals simply refuse all refugee claimants. There’s this false perception that claimants no longer have medical coverage.”

Following the recent cutbacks, the federal government created a system with three main types of IFHP coverage: Expanded Health Care Coverage, Health Care Coverage, and Public Health/Public Safety Health Coverage.

[pullquote]Billing is apparently a nightmare. There are lots of delays and there is a big turndown rate.[/pullquote]

“The new system and the incredible lack of information from the government created confusion as to who is entitled to what,” Cleveland said. “Some people lost their coverage because they didn’t realize they needed to renew IFHP documents, and for many operations, pre-authorization is required. Billing is apparently a nightmare. There are lots of delays and there is a big turn-down rate.”

A direct negative impact of the new system on refugees is that there exist almost no medical services available to refused refugee claimants, except in Quebec. In addition, there are insufficient supplies of medication for all refugee claimants and privately sponsored refugees—those whose care is sponsored by their employers or by non-governmental organizations.

Moreover, it is increasingly difficult for refugees to access the care to which they are entitled, especially those in need of long-term care, such as pregnant women and people with chronic conditions.

The government has several reasons for the changes—one of which is to save money.

“[The federal government’s] rationale is that for a number of years they’ve been spreading propaganda that refugees are getting better coverage than Canadians,” she said. “In practice though, refugees claimants receive [health care] very much similar to low-income Canadians.”

According to Cleveland, this discourse and policy seem to be anti-refugee in nature, and portray refugee claimants as opportunistic. As a result of these federal measures, provinces are forced to carry much of the financial burden involved in caring for refugees.

“In Quebec, refused refugee claimants are still covered until [their] deportation date,” Cleveland explained. “[In Ontario] the government provides [the] same supplemental coverage for refugee claimants as for citizens. [In] British Columbia, there is social assistance for refugee claimants …  [In Alberta], Adult Health Benefit and Child Health Benefit are provided to low-income families for essential medications, and basic dental and eye care.”

Josh Pincott, a third-year arts student, said he found the seminar interesting, and that he was surprised by the information provided at the event.

“I didn’t realize the cuts had so many implications for refugees,” Pincott said. “I think it would also be interesting to ask how much responsibility the federal government should take for refugees’ welfare rather than what they do.”


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