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Decision on refugee health a victory for compassion

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SASKATOON -- The Federal Court of Canada recently ruled the Conservative government's 2012 cuts to health care for refugees were unconstitutional, going against Section 12 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that forbids "cruel and unusual punishment."

The court ruling is a victory for refugees, for those who work with them and more generally for compassion and common sense. But it is also a victory for a generation of newly politicized health-care providers in Canada who fought to reverse the deplorable change in policy from day one.

Canada has long been known as a safe haven for refugees from around the world. For the past 50 years, refugees arriving here received access to health-care services, including coverage for dental care, optometry and prescription medications. Given that people fleeing violence and oppression often emerge from long periods in refugee camps where no medical care is readily available, they typically have higher levels of illness.

In providing for this vulnerable population, the Interim Federal Health (IFH) Program reflected a kind and wise approach to providing health care to refugees of which Canadians could be rightly proud.

In 2012, however, the federal government, under then-minister of citizenship and immigration Jason Kenney, made sweeping cuts to the coverage, drastically reducing services for all categories of refugees (though they were eventually reinstated for government-assisted refugees) and completely eliminating health services for certain categories except in cases of public-health risk.

This meant a refugee with tuberculosis might receive treatment, but not one who had diabetes or one who was having a heart attack.

The rationale given for these cuts was they would make the system fair, improve public health and decrease costs. It's difficult to imagine something less fair than denying health services to someone who has just escaped oppression and violence. As for protecting public health and saving costs, denying people primary care means they are more likely to use our health-care system later and when they are sicker. A sicker patient poses greater risk to those around them (for example, if they have an infectious illness), and treating more severe or worsened conditions costs more, too.

The evidence of the human cost of denying a vulnerable population essential care came quickly, with stories of pregnant women being turned away from receiving prenatal care, cancer patients being denied medications necessary for their treatment and children with asthma not having access to their inhalers. Already, just two years in, the economic costs of this decision are also becoming apparent, with a study from Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital showing increased admissions and overall costs for caring for children since the cuts.

The reaction the medical community and other health professionals had to the IFH cuts, however, is encouraging. Their opposition was not limited to individual activists, but included official bodies such as the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian College of Family Physicians, the Canadian Nurses Association, Canadian Pediatric Society, Canadian Bar Association and many others.

Doctors for Refugee Care, an organization founded in response to the IFH cuts, took the lead on organizing the resistance. It maintained consistent pressure through demonstrations, direct-action techniques such as having physicians interrupt announcements by Conservative MPs to voice their opposition to the cuts and through more official channels, including initiating the charter challenge that led to the recent court ruling.

But despite the outcry from health-care providers, dozens of organizations and even provincial governments of different political stripes, the Conservative government dug in its heels on these cuts. Hopefully this ruling will finally result in the reinstatement of the IFH program.

The court decision is a victory for common sense and compassion in Canadian health care. It's also a sign of a new leadership emerging from within the health professions. Health professionals are becoming more vocal in advocating for better health policy. This renewed focus on health for all, led by trusted voices from the people whose work it is to fight illness, bodes well for politics and broader well-being in Canada.


Dr. Ryan Meili is an expert adviser with, and author of A Healthy

Society: How a Focus on Health Can Revive

Canadian Democracy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2014 A9

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