Physicians working with refugees in Toronto say the federal government’s move to designate “safe” countries of origin puts lives in danger.
“Pregnant women will no longer have access to essential pre-natal care, and will not be able to deliver their babies in hospital - unless they are able to pay thousands of dollars for it,” Dr. Michael Stephenson, a general practitioner with Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services said in a release.
The group operates hubs welcoming newcomers to Canada at AccessPoint on Danforth in southwest Scarborough and AccessPoint on Jane in the former City of York.
“People having heart attacks or diabetic shock will no longer be able to seek even emergency treatment for their conditions. Lives will be lost through this political decision,” Stephenson warned.
Federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the “safe” list of countries, including the United States, Croatia and 25 countries in the European Union on Dec. 14 as a follow-up to passage of Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act.
In a statement, Kenney said designating certain countries safe is “an important step towards a faster and fairer asylum system.”
The act reduced health care benefits for some refugee claimants. Claimants from “safe” countries will now get coverage only in cases where there is a public health or public safety concern.
That means a person showing violent tendencies or an illness endangering others - tuberculosis, for example - will still be treated free, said Dr. Paul Caulford, a family physician who runs a clinic for uninsured patients in Scarborough.
Women in labour or patients with suspected heart attacks won’t be turned away from hospitals, but if it turns out there’s no emergency, they’ll get a hefty bill, he said.
Kenney said the European Union “with its democratic tradition of freedom, respect for human rights, and an independent judiciary - has been the top source region of asylum claims made in Canada,” yet 91 per cent of EU claims to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada were rejected last year.
Designating countries, speeding the hearing process and limiting appeals, the minister said, ensures “genuine refugees fleeing persecution will receive protection more quickly, while, at the same time, failed asylum claimants from generally safe countries will be removed much faster.”
Caulford said he has seen “an unprecedented crisis in numbers of uninsured or underinsured refugee claimants” appearing at his Lawrence Avenue East clinic, adding both patients and community health organizations are confused about who is covered and for what.
“We are seeing newborn babies being denied” health insurance and pregnant patients being told they have to pay $2,700 for an obstetrician and delivery, though hospitals and doctors have often absorbed costs for claimants who can’t pay, said Caulford.
The situation is an “utter mess” and Doctors Without Borders - an organization that sends physicians overseas to countries where the health system has collapsed - is asking members to help at the Scarborough clinic, he said.
On the designated list is Hungary, source of many ethnic Roma claimants in Toronto. Access Alliance said Hungary is “a country where human rights abuses towards ethnic and political minorities are well-documented” and Caulford agreed Hungary should not be treated as a “safe” nation.
Caulford argues claimants and other uninsured people, whether their claims are genuine or not, should be treated not just on compassionate grounds but because they will cost Ontario’s health system more when, after getting sicker, they end up in emergency rooms.
Hospitals and other health care providers in Ontario stand to lose millions because of this “downloading” of costs from the federal government, which is responsible for refugee health, he said.
The federal Conservatives, however, say Canada’s provinces will save on social assistance and education costs under the new processing system.