Doug Gruner is a doctor at the Bruyère Family Medicine Centre in Ottawa and a member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. He says that the Harper government was wrong when it decided in 2012 to deny many refugees access to health care in Canada. “These cuts were irrational and basically irresponsible, and the right thing to do is to reverse them immediately,” Gruner recently told the ecumenical group, Citizens for Public Justice, at their annual general meeting in Ottawa. Several members of the audience identified themselves as belonging to groups who have privately sponsored refugees. They described the chill that has set in: groups now fear having to pay expensive medical bills if the people they sponsor become ill.
In 2012, Gruner said that the government, with no consultation, made “drastic cuts” to the Interim Federal Health Program, which had provided health care to refugees since 1957. That led to widespread protests and the spectacle of doctors — sporting white coats and stethoscopes — demonstrating on Parliament Hill and at various events attended by federal cabinet ministers.
Public pressure led the government to backtrack only slightly. “They made an exception for government assisted refugees, and privately-sponsored refugees were allowed basic health care but lost their supplementary benefits,” Gruner said. “They can see a doctor, for example, but have no access to coverage for prescription drugs. Other classes of refugee claimants have lost their health-care coverage altogether.”
Gruner added that the cuts caused “mass confusion” among health care providers, refugees and private sponsors. “It was not clear who was and was not covered. Some doctors were turning sick people away. Some children and pregnant women who would have had access to health care in refugee camps abroad did not have access to it in Canada.” That’s because cancer treatments and insulin medication for diabetes are no longer covered.
Government ministers falsely claim that refugees once received “gold-plated” health care that was better than that accorded to most Canadians. In truth, according to Gruner, “refugees were receiving the same care as people on social assistance and now they are receiving a lot less.”
He pointed out that a group of 20 health-related organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association, have written letters to the minister about the health-care cuts on three occasions but have received no response to date. Doctors, other health- care workers and members of the public held a National Day of Action on June 16 protesting against the cuts to refugee health care. It included a rally on Parliament Hill.
“We are not going to stop. We are going to keep the pressure on for them to do the right thing and reverse these cuts.” Gruner concluded while calling on his largely church-based audience to ask faith leaders to be outspoken on the issue, too. “If you don’t put pressure on the government, this is not going to work.”
Note: This piece appeared in a slightly different form in the United Church Observer on June 12, 2014.