Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rally for newcomers' health care

Organizers cite 'horror stories'

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Hundreds of health-care workers, newcomers and their friends are set to rally at noon today in Central Park to celebrate Manitoba's "compassion" and to call for help for refugees in other provinces suffering without health benefits.

The National Day of Action for Refugee Health Care is being held in Winnipeg and 18 other Canadian cities and is organized by doctors and health-care providers. It's a response to the federal government cuts to supplemental health benefits for privately sponsored refugees approved and invited to Canada.

During refugees' first year here, costs for items such as prescription drugs, prosthetic limbs, dental and vision care are no longer covered by the Interim Federal Health plan. The cuts took effect last year on the eve of Canada Day.

Manitoba and Quebec responded by covering the costs rather than letting newcomers settle and go without critical items such as diabetes medication and eyeglasses.

"We want to acknowledge what's gone right in Manitoba," said Winnipeg rally spokesman Dr. Mike Dillon, who has worked with refugees for more than 20 years. "And we want to acknowledge the effects the cuts are still having across the country and to express solidarity with doctors across the country."

"In Manitoba, people care," he said. "We have said, 'We want to help -- this is valid. We will do what we can on a personal basis, on an agency basis and on a provincial basis.' We're fortunate we're in this situation," said Dillon, who has heard upsetting stories from doctors in other provinces where refugees aren't getting the medical help they need.

"I feel quite relieved I'm not standing here with a long list of horror stories -- but it has happened in other provinces. What we have here in Manitoba is stories about people who've gotten help," said Dillon, who took part in a rally a year ago at The Forks when hundreds protested the Interim Federal Health plan cuts.

People were afraid when they heard about the cuts last year, said Noelle DePape, a member of the Immigration Matters Coalition. The federal cuts sent a message to new refugees -- whom Canada had approved and invited -- that they were not really welcome, she said.

"I had a 14-year-old come up to me last year who said, 'I heard our health care is being taken away -- did I do something wrong? Why does Harper hate me? What did I do?' "

Panic set in when prescription medications were no longer covered, said DePape.

"People were starting to be in a real bind -- it caused a lot of anxiety for folks," she said. Manitobans responded with compassion, she said. Volunteers, community health centres and settlement agencies in Winnipeg stepped up to cover the gap in refugee health care.

"Once the province figured out how to make it work, the vast majority of people were getting their health-care expenses paid for," said DePape.

In other provinces, it's a different story, she said.

"In Toronto, doctors and medical students are doing volunteer clinics to provide health care," said DePape. "That's a Band-Aid solution that's not sustainable. The feds need to step up and cover the cost," she said.

"Vulnerable people are falling through the cracks -- they're sick and not being treated with dignity. We want to raise awareness about the national problem that's happening."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2013 A6

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