By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
Saskatoon health professionals and medical students were among those taking part in a national day of action June 18, protesting upcoming cuts to federal health care coverage for refugees.
Some 100 people walked from the Vimy Memorial across the University Bridge to the memorial gates at the entrance to Royal University Hospital, carrying signs with slogans such as "All kids need their shots," "Canada: proud to be a welcoming country" and "All diabetics need their insulin."
Demonstrations in a dozen other Canadian cities were held on the same day to protest federal government changes in the Interim Federal Health program, which will leave many refugees and protected persons without access to primary health care services and medications.
"From coast to coast to coast you have got health care workers, citizens and newcomers to Canada all coming out and saying these cuts are a really bad idea," said Dr. Ryan Meili, who works at the Westside Community Clinic and is a member of the national advocacy organization Canadian Doctors for Medicare.
His wife, pediatrics resident Dr. Mahli Brindamour, co-chair of the immigrant and refugee health committee at the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, spoke at the rally, explaining how as of July 1, changes to the Interim Federal Health Program will leave vulnerable persons without health care coverage.
The Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) provides temporary health care coverage to eligible protected persons, refugee claimants and others until they qualify for provincial or territorial health insurance plans. In the past it has covered basic and emergency medical care, and some extended health care coverage such as medication, dental care and vision care.
"It is basically the same as what a low-income Canadian citizen receives," explained Brindamour.
For all refugees, health care coverage will be substantially decreased under the new legislation, she said.
First there are those who are not yet covered by a provincial health care plan. "They will only have access to health care in emergency situations or if their conditions are deemed a threat to public health. They will have no medication coverage, and no dental care. So medication such as insulin, or inhalers for asthma will not be covered anymore," she said.
Government or privately sponsored refugees who are covered by a provincial health care plan will no longer have federal supplemental health insurance, which covered prescriptions, mobility devices, vision care, and emergency dental services.
"Refugee claimants who are from designated countries of origin, as well as rejected refugee claimants, will have no access to health care at all, including for emergency situations. They will have access only if their condition becomes a threat to public health," explained Brindamour.
"Designated country of origin" is a new concept introduced in Bill C31, describing countries that the government has designated as "safe."
"Refugees will not receive health care, according to the category that they fall into," Brindamour said.
The government has said these cuts are to accomplish three goals: to improve the fairness of the system, to reduce spending and to protect public health.
"What is more unfair than denying access to health care to one of the world's most vulnerable populations?" countered Brindamour. "People who come to Canada in their hour of need deserve to be treated with dignity, to be welcomed and to be supported."
It is false economy to cut preventative and primary health care to a vulnerable population, she added. Conditions that could have been prevented or treated early for less cost, will instead end up requiring more costly treatment or longer admissions, she predicted.
"We believe that the risk to public safety will actually be greater because people pose the greatest threat to public health if they are not engaged in health care."
Brindamour pointed to Canada's "long and proud history of providing refuge to men women and children from around the world who are fleeing wars, famine, political persecution, torture or violence."
She concluded: "Providing health care to refugees is not only the privilege and the compassionate act of a rich nation, it is also sound health and economic policy."
During the rally, Meili cited a long list of organizations opposing the cuts to coverage for refugees, including the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses' Association, the Canadian Pediatric Society, the Canadian Psychiatric Society, the Canadian Federation of Medical Students, the Canadian Association of Social Workers, the Canadian Dental Association, and the Canadian Pharmacists Association.