Doctors and other healthcare providers protest the federal government's cuts to refugee health care benefits at the Grand Parade in Halifax on Monday, June 17, 2013. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have launched a legal challenge to Ottawa's health care cuts to refugees. Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press
The federal government will appeal a court decision overturning its cuts to refugee health-care funding, Canadian Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said today.
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Earlier Friday, the Federal Court released a decision giving the government four months to change federal cuts to refugee health care. The court threatened to strike down the changes.
Alexander said in a statement that the government "will vigorously defend the interests of taxpayers and ... the integrity of our fair and generous refugee determination system."
Lawyer Lorne Waldman, representing a group of Canadian doctors who challenged the cuts, said the court found the treatment is "cruel and unusual" because it jeopardizes the health of refugees and shocks the conscience of Canadians.
Judge Anne Mactavish ruled the federal cabinet has the power to make such changes and that the procedure was fair, but that the people affected by the changes are being subjected to "cruel and unusual" treatment.
"This is particularly, but not exclusively, so as it affects children who have been brought to this country by their parents," Mactavish wrote in the 268-page decision.
"The 2012 modifications to the [Interim Federal Health Program] potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency.
"I have found as a fact that lives are being put at risk."
The Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and Justice for Children and Youth welcomed the decision in a news release. The three groups will hold a news conference at 1 p.m. ET Friday.
"The impact of the federal Conservative government’s cuts has been devastating," Dr. Philip Berger, medical director of the inner city health program at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said in the release.
"For more than two years now, doctors across Canada have seen these cuts place the pregnancies of refugee women at serious risk, cause denial of treatment for sick children, and deprive refugees with cancer of coverage for chemotherapy. We are pleased to see the Federal Court put an end to this unwarranted suffering."
The changes created a pile of paperwork for doctors who refused to deny care to refugees, leaving them to figure out who to bill for the costs. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care has been trying to meet with Immigration Minister Chris Alexander for more than a year, but has failed to land a get-together.
Ottawa trimmed medical benefits for newcomers in 2012, leaving most immigrants with basic, essential health care but without supplementals such as vision and dental care.
However, rejected refugee claimants — and refugee claimants from countries the government considers safe — are eligible under the new law for care only when they pose a threat to public health.
That means no coverage for heart problems, pregnancy, infant vaccinations, diabetes, and any other ailments that threaten the health of the refugee but aren't a risk to public health.
Ontario reinstated the benefits Jan. 1, a move that drew strong criticism from Ottawa, which accused the province of intruding into an area of federal responsibility.
$91M cost cite for reform
The government argued in front of the court that the cost of the program had skyrocketed over the years, as more refugees used the program and the number of days they spent under the program increased. The government said 105,326 people were eligible for benefits in 2003 and spent an average of 548 days covered by the program. As of 2012, 128,586 people qualified for benefits and spent an average of 948 days on it.
"The IFHP cost Canadian taxpayers $50,600,000 in 2002/2003 and almost $91,000,000 in 2009/2010. As a consequence, cost containment was a driving principle underlying the decision to reform the IFHP," Mactavish summarized in her decision.
But Waldman says there's no evidence the government saved any money because the costs were passed down to the provinces.
Mactavish wrote in her ruling that there is "no persuasive evidence to show that the changes to the eligibility and coverage provisions of the IFHP have served to deter unmeritorious claims, thereby reducing the cost of the program."
"While the respondents have provided information regarding the overall reduction in refugee claims following the recent changes to the refugee process, there has been no attempt to identify how much of a reduction in refugee claims, if any, is actually attributable to the cuts to the IFHP, as opposed to the other changes that have been made to the refugee determination process. As a consequence, it cannot be said that the 2012 changes to the IFHP were necessary to achieve a legitimate aim."
Liberal immigration critic John McCallum credited the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for protecting refugee health care, though he noted the government can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
"I think it's a great day for refugees who are extremely vulnerable, for the Ontario government which stood up to the government on this, and for Canada," McCallum said.
"They [the Conservatives] don't like the Charter ... but it is the law of the land."
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