A man denied eye surgery to prevent blindness. A man with symptoms of tuberculosis denied an X-ray. A woman denied asthma medication, resulting in a costly ER visit and hospitalization.
These are some of the results of the Harper government’s cuts to refugee health care over the past year. According to Dr. Meb Rashid, medical director of the Crossroads Clinic at Women's College Hospital. “The patients we see have fled unimaginable terror to seek a safer life in Canada, and our government is telling doctors that they cannot provide necessary treatment.”
On April 25 of last year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program, implemented on June 30. Kenney claimed the cuts would be fair, save money and protect public health—and all these claims were bogus. As the Canadian Council for Refugees immediately predicted, the cuts would create a two-tier system of refugee care, deny essential medical care, institutionalize gender discrimination and offload costs to the provinces. That’s exactly what has happened.
A six year old child denied tests for urinary tract infection. A pregnant woman fleeing the sex trade denied tests. A sexual violence survivor denied PTSD treatment.
But what could not have been predicted was the massive outrage from the medical community, beginning May 11, 2012 with occupations of Tory offices in Winnipeg and Toronto, a rally in Ottawa and press conference in other cities. This launched Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care (CDRC). Then on May 18 an open letter condemning the cuts was signed by national associations representing optometrists, nurses, doctors, social workers, dentists, pharmacists, and family physicians.
On June 18 last year, health providers organized a day of action with rallies in a dozen cities across the country—from Inuvik to Vancouver to St. John’s—opposing the cuts and the way they are being used to scapegoat refugees for broader cuts to healthcare. As Dr. Mark Tyndall said at the Ottawa press conference, "the government has used this issue to divide Canadians, pitting those who are dissatisfied with their own health coverage against refugees. Canadians are smarter than this. This is an attack on our entire healthcare system." Through the summer health providers continued to challenge government officials, while 17 year-old Bashir Mohamed directly challenged Jason Kenney.
While the government quietly reversed a small number of the cuts under pressure from protests, Kenney posted a shameless petition on his own website congratulating himself for the cuts, refused to document the impact of the cuts, and dismissed all evidence collected by CDRC of people who have suffered as a result of the cuts. Meanwhile the cuts are having their intended consequences. According to Dr. Philip Berger, Chief of Family and Community Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital, “we advised the government from the beginning that these program cuts would reduce care, increase costs to other areas of the health system and needlessly threaten public safety, and regrettably, this is exactly what our colleagues are seeing in clinics and hospitals across Canada.”
A child of a refugee applicant denied immunizations. A teenager with PTSD and suicide attempts denied medication. A young girl with fever denied investigations for malaria.
Opposition to the cuts has continued to grow. On December 15 resident physicians organized vigils to protest the “Designated Country of Origin” list that deprives health care from refugee claimants from countries arbitrarily labeled “safe”. In February CDRC and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers launched a constitutional challenge. This Monday, June 17, is a second day of action, taking place in 19 cities: Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Windsor, London, Kitchener, Guelph, Hamilton, Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and St. John’s.
June 17 will be an important mobilization for all those who oppose the cuts to refugee health, and momentum is building. UofT and McGill faculties of medicine are facilitating learner participation. Health providers from across the country and around the world are participating in a photo campaign, posted on CDRC’s facebook page. Over 50 prominent writers and artists—including Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, Shirley Douglas, Jian Ghomeshi, Naomi Klein, Vincent Lam and Kiefer Sutherland—have signed an open letter: “We call on the federal government to reverse these health cuts and restore our country’s humanitarian tradition of providing care to refugees. On June 17th, please join us and Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care in participating in a National Day of Action. There are events taking place in cities across the country. To learn more, please visit www.doctorsforrefugeecare.ca.”
See you in the streets.