Ontario sixth province to fill in gaps in refugee health coverage

It was last January when we stood shivering outside the Ministry of Health with a group of young activists concerned about federal cuts to refugee health coverage.

A year ago Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec had already signed on to fill in the gap left by the federal government. Nova Scotia and Alberta followed.

Ontario has now become the sixth province to provide needed care to refugees impacted by cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program.

More than half of the refugees left without care by the Harper government live in Ontario.

Claiming that the senior level of government has “abdicated” their responsibility, the Ontario government says it intends to extend needed coverage and send the bill back to Ottawa.

“Along with other provincial governments we will continue to call on the federal government to reinstate the federal program providing all refugee claimants health care coverage,” Health Minister Deb Matthews said in a Monday release.

As of January 1, 2014 the new Ontario Temporary Health Program will cover most hospital, primary, specialist, laboratory, and diagnostic services. Subject to income testing, the government will also extend coverage to “medications consistent with the Ontario Drug Benefit formulary.”

A year ago Matthews had written to the Federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney suggesting such cuts escalated the cost of care for these individuals. Small problems turned into larger ones without access to reasonable health care coverage.

While the government has suggested cuts to the program would save about $20 million a year nationally, many argued those savings would evaporate when the cost of not treating these individuals was taken into consideration.

The decision has also been subject to a court challenge by Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association for Refugee Lawyers.

The Interim Federal Health Program was originally intended to bridge coverage for refugees until they became eligible for provincial health insurance.

Confusion over who is covered and who is not has led some refugees to be turned away from care even if they qualified under the revamped program.

Heartbreaking stories about pregnant women and cancer patients being denied coverage in Canada has led to a growing movement to oppose the cuts. By last summer a number of high-profile Canadians lent their voices to the campaign, including Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Rohinton Mistry, Shirley Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Jian Ghomeshi, Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul.

The new rules excluding certain refugees from coverage came into effect July 2012.


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