05/11/2012 09:46 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Doctors stage sit-in over refugee health care cuts

About 80 doctors staged a sit-in at the Toronto office of federal cabinet minister Joe Oliver Friday, with the activists demanding to meet with the minister to raise concerns about changes to health care for refugees and refugee claimants.

"I just cannot understand how my government can take the most vulnerable of people and decide it's appropriate to make them more vulnerable," said Dr. Paul Caulford, a Scarborough, Ont., family physician, who has worked with immigrants and refugees for decades.

The local doctors chose Oliver's office because he is the cabinet minister who represents Toronto.

Under the plan, some refugee claimants would only be entitled to urgent care — others would be denied all care unless they have a disease that would be a risk to the public, such as tuberculosis. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the plan is to ensure refugees don’t get better health care than ordinary Canadians. He said the move would save the government about $100 million over the next five years.

Oliver was not at his office but about 60 of the doctors occupied it for about half an hour before police arrived and asked them to leave. They continued their protest outside on the street for another two hours.

Patients worried about being cut off medications

Waving placards and using a megaphone, doctor after doctor decried the proposal, calling it short-sighted and contrary to Canadian values.

"If Canadians knew what was happening they would be outraged," said Dr. Meb Rashid, director of The Crossroads clinic at Toronto's Women’s College Hospital, which provides care for refugees.

He said his patients are already worried that under the plan, they will be cut off from life-saving medications such as insulin and hypertension drugs.

The new policy is set to take effect at the end of June. It means many refugee claimants will only be treated if they have an infection or disease that poses a risk to public health.

"Does this mean it's OK that a person seeking refuge in Canada dies from heart disease or from untreated diabetes, as long as they don't infect the rest of us with tuberculosis?" asked Dr. Tatiana Friere-Lizama, a perinatologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

Friere-Lizama came to Canada as a refugee from Chile when she was seven. She said her family came with nothing but benefited from the country's generosity.

"These changes to refugee health are an attack on our beliefs," she said. "As doctors, we've got to speak up for our refugee patients. They deserve to land in a Canada that cares about them."

Designed to deter fraud

The government says the move is also designed to deter fraudulent refugee claimants from coming to Canada for free health and dental care.

But Dr. Philip Berger, chief of family medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, calls that absurd.

"Someone coming out of a camp somewhere, having lost their husband and with two kids, is not going to be running for a teeth cleaning when they set foot in Canada."

A spokesperson for Oliver said in a statement that the minister was out of the office on business, adding that had the doctors made a request in advance, he might have agreed to meet them.

The move was one of several protests held across the country by doctors who say denying health services to refugees is mean-spirited and counter-productive.