Today is the 3rd annual National Day of Action for Refugee Health. Events have been organized across the country to protest cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program and call on the government to reinstate equitable healthcare coverage for all refugees and refugee claimants. Editorials in major health journals express concern about the effect of these cuts. A court challenge is in place. The Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care have challenged the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to a public debate. The federal government has ignored requests from the health care community for a discussion about the impact of these cuts.
As a family doctor in suburban Ontario, I am occasionally asked to provide health care for someone who is here in Canada as a refugee. I’m always happy to do so. Appropriate health care for refugees is smart public health and wise public policy. About two years ago, my medical colleagues and I were stunned when the federal government implemented dramatic cuts to refugee health care funding. This has made it increasingly difficult for my colleagues and I to provide the right care. Refugees have been denied access to essential primary care. They are denied access to tests that could identify important treatable illnesses. Thankfully provincial governments have picked up the bill for some health care costs for refugees. But some of these costs could have been avoided or minimized.
Cuts to refugee health care are dangerous from a public health perspective, an economic perspective and a moral perspective. From the public health viewpoint, one refugee was denied coverage for a chest x-ray and later found to have pneumonia, which affected his health and potentially others around him. From an economic viewpoint, I know more than one pregnant woman unable to get proper prenatal care because of being a refugee. The infant’s health can be adversely affected. These babies are Canadian citizens. It would be smarter to care for the mother appropriately and prevent avoidable costs in caring for their newborns. The program changes that have compromised access to health care for this vulnerable group are not cost-effective and have a negative impact on the Canadian health care system, increasing the burden on provinces and territories.
But it is from the moral perspective that we should be most disturbed. People seek refuge in Canada because they need a place to be safe. No one wants to be a refugee. They have often fled horrendous circumstances in their country of origin. A civilized society must protect its most vulnerable members, wherever their origin.
If the federal government will not act in a way that protects the most vulnerable in society, the rest of us must mobilize public opinion and advocate for what is right. Today, across the country, health care providers gather to demonstrate their objection to the cuts affecting refugee health care. I hereby add my name to the list of countless health care workers who cannot support a policy of denying basic care to people seeking refuge in our land. Today, we ask for action. We ask for cuts to be reversed. We ask for a commitment to care.