On Feb 24, 2016 Toronto Star published this article: Cancellation of refugee health benefits forces doctors to put down their stethoscopes and take up placards.
If one action marked the nadir of Stephen Harper’s tenure, it was the Conservative government’s decision to deny life-saving medicine to refugee claimants.
Even for a government that took pride in slashing everything from food safety inspection to public broadcasting, this set a new low. It violated Canadian standards of decency. It saved a measly $20 million a year (less than one thousandth of Canada’s annual health bill). It forced physicians who had never dreamt of carrying a placard or challenging their own government in court to take radical action.
Last week, to the relief of all but the most tight-fisted taxpayers, the Liberal government re-instated basic health benefits for all refugees and asylum seekers.
“It is a proud day to be Canadian,” said Dr. Philip Berger and Dr. Meb Rashid, the pair of physicians who founded Canadians Doctors for Refugee Care four years ago. Berger is medical director of the Inner City Health Program at St. Michael’s Hospital. Rashid heads the Crossroads Clinic for Refugees at Women’s College Hospital.
The announcement from Immigration Minister John McCallum and Health Minister Jane Philpott was not a surprise. The Liberals promised in last fall’s election campaign to fully restore the 59-year-old Interim Federal Health Program. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set a delivery date of April 1, 2016, in his inaugural speech from the throne. He highlighted it as a priority in McCallum’s mandate letter. He mentioned it in speech after speech.
What was a surprise was that the Liberals went further than anticipated. Next year, they will widen the program to cover the costs arising before refugees designated for resettlement set foot in Canada: medical exams required for entry, pre-departure vaccinations and services to manage disease outbreaks in refugee camps.
Rashid was still getting used to the news the morning after the announcement. He could finally get back to serving vulnerable, traumatized asylum seekers after four years of protesting, organizing rallies, speaking to journalists, testifying in court and advocating for his patients. But he’d already had his first dose of reality. “I just had a patient who was turned away by a specialist,” he said. “It will take time for some doctors to adjust.”
Technically the old regime is still in place until April 1. But Rashid knows some medical practitioners will not go back to treating sick, traumatized refugees. Harper made it legitimate to discriminate against asylum seekers. Habits like that aren’t easy to change.
On the other hand, Rashid says, the refugee health saga turned medical students and residents into leaders. It was a living case study in what can happen when cost-cutting trumps fairness and compassion. “We now have a generation of clinicians that recognizes that advocacy is part of their profession.”