Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Neither sound, nor caring

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The Harper government's intent to keep bogus refugee claimants out of Canada has stumbled badly in its plans to curb health-care benefits for legitimate, federally sponsored refugees. It is financial folly and potentially dangerous to deny a near-destitute refugee medication for chronic disease.

As part of its budget-cutting efforts, the federal government is changing the health benefits refugees now get under a short-term federal program. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has repeatedly stressed the changes are intended to dissuade bogus refugee claimants from designated democratic countries from attempting to short-circuit the immigration process. Health benefits for refugee claimants from this designated list will be strictly curtailed.

But legitimate refugees will feel the pain of reduced benefits, too. Federally sponsored refugees are financially supported in their first year in Canada, and receive supplemental health benefits -- drug, vision and dental care -- similar to those provided to Canadians receiving provincial welfare. Mr. Kenney says refugees shouldn't get more health coverage than other Canadians, but this is comparing the destitute and traumatized with Canadians who are financially secure.

As of June 30, settled refugees and claimants not from the designated countries will continue to get critical care -- the emergency services of hospitals, doctors or nurses. But unless their health condition is a threat to public health -- HIV, for example -- they will no longer have medications covered. A refugee with diabetes will get diagnostic and followup care, but their pills or insulin shots will not be covered. A person with angina or high blood pressure will have medical assessment and any tests required, but no drug coverage. Eyeglasses or fillings for dental cavities will not be covered.

It is not difficult to see the penny-wise, pound-foolish repercussions of this new policy. There is small chance a refugee claimant whose application has been denied, and is awaiting appeal, would suffer a life-threatening health crisis. But more likely and worrisome, the refugees who are to become landed immigrants and citizens could see their long-term health or lives imperiled by the decision to withdraw coverage for medications in the year they are under federal sponsorship.

The reform will add pressure to provincial health budgets as refugees resort to using emergency health services. Mr. Kenney expects the changes will save Ottawa $100 million over five years, but does not indicate how much will come from reduced claimants from designated countries. The provinces will shoulder the other costs, and while deaths may be rare, they are not implausible.

The benefits of having good social services available to newcomers immediately upon arrival and in a period of initial settlement include faster integration, putting refugees on stronger footing for attaining critical skills -- language acquisition, for example -- necessary for finding a job. Canadians can follow the logic of Mr. Kenney's restrictions on those from democratic countries who seek asylum here. Cutting off a wide range of health coverage to the persecuted who see Canada as a safe haven is neither compassionate nor financially sound.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2012 A10

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