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Diocese fights for refugee health care

Asks court to overrule Tory cuts

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The local diocese of the Anglican Church has gone to Federal Court in a bid to reverse the federal health-care cuts to the refugee program.

In a hearing Wednesday in Federal Court in Winnipeg, the Rupert's Land Diocese made an application for judicial review, effectively asking the court to rule the Harper government cuts are a breach of contract with sponsoring organizations and order the government to keep them in place.

"All we want is a declaration of a breach (of contract)," lawyer David Matas told Federal Court Judge James O'Reilly during a two-hour hearing.

The Harper government announced in April it was trimming the health-care benefits provided to all refugees, eliminating what it considered supplemental benefits such as dental and vision care, prescription drugs, counselling, prosthetics and wheelchairs.

The move was supposed to save the federal government $100 million over five years.

In June, the government quietly amended the changes, restricting the cuts to only refugees sponsored by private, mostly faith-based organizations, but allowing them for government-chosen refugees such as victims of human trafficking, a cause championed by Conservative MP Joy Smith (Kildonan-St. Paul).

Matas, representing the Anglican Church's Rupert's Land Diocese, said the court action seeks to restore the cuts only for those refugees who were brought to Canada under the terms of a January 2012 agreement with the federal government.

Matas said the non-profit, faith-based organizations that sponsor the refugees did so assuming Ottawa would provide the broad coverage of health benefits in its Interim Federal Health program.

He said Ottawa acted arbitrarily, without consultation with the affected sponsors, who now are faced with providing the extra care for the refugees.

The cuts were also discriminatory, he said, adding the benefits remain in place for some refugees but not for those who come to Canada through privately funded organizations.

Federal government lawyer Joel Katz said Ottawa continues to provide basic health care to all refugees, adding it's up to the affected refugees to find the means for the additional benefits if they want or need them.

Katz said the faith-based organizations that sponsor these refugees are under no legal obligation to provide the supplemental health benefits.

He said the federal government has the right to alter existing programs or introduce new programs regardless of whom they might affect. He said new programs could result in a breach of contract, but added that doesn't mean a court can order the changes reversed.

Private organizations entered a contract with the federal government, Katz said, adding they agreed to provide sponsored refugees with food, clothing, transportation and other necessities for up to 12 months. The contract does not stipulate the groups must provide health-care benefits, he said.

Katz said if any of the faith-based sponsor groups believes there has been a breach of contract, they should sue the federal government and prove the damages they have incurred as a result of the breach.

He said Manitoba opted to provide the supplemental benefits Ottawa cut, and the Rupert's Land Diocese and its private partners have suffered no financial hardship.

After the hearing, Matas said although Manitoba and Quebec stepped in when Ottawa withdrew the supplemental benefits, other provinces did not, and the sponsoring groups are incurring unexpected costs to provide the additional benefits.

Matas said if the court rules in the diocese's favour, it would be binding on Ottawa for all groups across the country.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2013 A5

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