MDs slam refugee cuts

Ottawa's cost-saving health move dismissed as 'false economy'


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Winnipeg refugee Cyrilo Simpunga is in a race against time to get a decent prosthetic after his leg was hacked off with a machete in Congo eight years ago.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/06/2012 (3999 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg refugee Cyrilo Simpunga is in a race against time to get a decent prosthetic after his leg was hacked off with a machete in Congo eight years ago.

Starting June 30 — the day before Canada Day — the federal government will no longer pay for refugees’ mobility aids such as prosthetics, prescription drugs or eye and dental care.

On Monday, more than 300 health-care workers, friends and advocates joined refugees such as Simpunga at The Forks to protest cuts to Canada’s Interim Federal Health Program.

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Newcomer Cyrilo Simpunga, who lost his leg in a machete attack in Congo, would be facing a difficult future without a federal program that covers refugees’ health benefits. Simpunga is getting a new prosthetic, but others won’t be as fortunate since the funding is ending.

Simpunga arrived in Canada April 18 with a bad prosthetic leg he can barely walk on and a festering stomach ulcer that’s going to take a few weeks to cure with drugs that cost $194 a week. Without the drugs, he’d end up in intensive care, costing about $2,000 a day, said Karin Gordon, settlement co-ordinator at Hospitality House, which sponsored Simpunga. With a proper prosthetic leg, he doesn’t need his crutch and can run up stairs two at a time, she said.

Before Monday’s rally, she took him for a fitting at Deer Lodge Centre, where specialists fast-tracked his case so he could get the new leg before the June 30 deadline.

“When I got it, I threw away my crutch and I felt like running,” Simpunga said in his native language of Kirundi through a translator. He hasn’t been able to run since that day in Congo eight years ago, when he was taking care of cows and marauders with machetes attacked his village. He didn’t have time to run and hide, he recalled.

“They cut off my leg. Another boy helped me. After that, they killed him. The next day, somebody put me on a bike to see a doctor.

“They pulled the skin over the (stump) and made it look clean.” A year later, he got an old, ill-fitting prosthetic that required him to walk with a crutch.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Health-care workers and supporters chant at a demonstration at The Forks Monday to protest the planned cuts to refugee health services.

“It’s not very good,” he said. “I can’t do very much. I can’t walk for 30 minutes without feeling pain,” he said resting on a bench at The Forks near Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices.

His new $10,000 leg makes Simpunga mobile so he can be productive, he said. In two weeks, it will be ready and he’s eager to put it to good use and get to work. He’s studying English and looking for employment.

“At present, I will do anything.”

His dream is to get a job as a driver one day. “That’s the only thing I know.”

Simpunga learned to drive after losing his leg and ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya. Without the ulcer medication and the new leg, his future in Canada looked grim.

Cyrilo Simpunga

Kay Seng, a refugee from Myanmar who landed with a host of undiagnosed health problems, said she’d probably be dead without the supplemental health-care coverage. When she arrived in Winnipeg in 2006, the Karen tribe member did nothing but sleep for a month, she said. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, hepatitis C and diabetes she’s been able to get under control with the help of a dietitian, one of the services being cut June 30. Without the attention, “I would’ve died I think,” Seng said. “But I am still here six years later,” said the 62-year-old Karen community leader.

“They are the survivors,” said Dr. Michael Dillon, who’s been caring for refugees in Winnipeg for nearly 20 years. Not taking care of people when they first arrive from war-torn, oppressive and starving countries will end up costing Canada down the road, said Dillon.

He’s written to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney asking him to reconsider the cuts to save money his department announced April 25.

“They’re based on ideas of false economy,” said Dillon. Newcomers with chronic conditions and dental problems left untreated have major, expensive health problems down the road. Without eye exams and vision care, it will be more difficult for some refugees to see to learn English, get jobs and start paying taxes, he said.

When asked for a comment, a spokesman for Kenney’s department instead pointed to the April 25 news release explaining the funding cut.

Dr. Michael Dillon

Human rights advocate and businessman Ali Saeed recalls going directly from the Winnipeg airport to the hospital when the Ethiopian torture survivor arrived decades ago. He weighed 112 pounds and required painkillers and supplements to restore his health. If someone hadn’t paid for them, Saeed said he’d never have been able to celebrate Canada Day.

“I would’ve died.” He hopes Canada never loses its compassion.

“Being a refugee is not a choice.”

Ending June 30

Ali Saeed

THE Interim Federal Health Program provides temporary health-care coverage to eligible protected persons, refugee claimants and others who do not qualify for provincial or territorial health insurance.

It provided basic health-care and supplemental coverage, including prenatal care, pharmaceutical care, dentistry, vision care and mobility aids. On June 30, the supplemental health care ends. The federal government expects to save an average $20 million a year over the next five years with the cuts.

In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the program cost $84.6 million.

In 2011, Manitoba welcomed close to 1,800 refugees.


Kay Seng

— source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada; Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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