OTTAWA — A family doctor crashed a funding announcement by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq Wednesday as part of an aggressive campaign by some health care providers to protest Ottawa’s planned limits on health services for refugees.
Dr. Megan Williams, a family physician with Ottawa's Somerset West Community Health Centre, challenged the minister during a press conference, accusing her government of putting people’s lives at risk.
“I do think people will become sick and probably some people will die because of this,” she told reporters.
In the recent federal budget, the Conservatives cut funding to the Interim Federal Health Program, which provides insurance to refugees, refugee claimants, asylum-seekers and those who cannot access provincial or territorial health care so they can see a physician or get coverage for prescription drugs.
Refugees and refugee claimants will still be able to access some medical services but only if they are deemed "essential" or "urgent" by the federal government, or if their condition puts public health or public safety in jeopardy. They will no longer have access to vision care, dental care, or prescription drugs, including insulin for diabetes.
Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, a broad coalition of health care professionals and national associations, has staged demonstrations in several cities to protest the cuts and recently stepped up the campaign by targeting ministerial announcements. Last week, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was interrupted during an announcement on medical isotope research by a physician from Brampton, Ont.
Williams allowed Aglukkaq to announce $238 million in funding for health care data and gave the minister time to answer reporter questions before she raised her voice.
She told the minister she was concerned by the cuts to services, which come into effect June 30, and asked who should be held accountable.
Aglukkaq said the federal government decided to provide the same care to refugees that every Canadian receives.
“Before [this change], a refugee got better health care coverage than the 30 million Canadians, so our decision is to continue with the services to refugees that it will be the same to all Canadians,” Aglukkaq said.
“But that’s not true,” Williams asserted.
“Yes it is,” Aglukkaq insisted.
Williams said Canadians are being deceived: “Right now refugees get the same health care we get. Starting next week they will get less health care,” she said.
“These are very vulnerable people, I work with them every day. They come from very difficult situations and they didn’t come here to get health care. They have come here to survive and we are going to make that more difficult for them by what we are doing.”
The federal government hopes to find $100 million in savings over five years by limiting the types of services covered under the Interim Federal Health Program. The Conservatives say the plan was never meant to provide complete health care coverage and now refugees will be treated like other Canadians without private health insurance.
Williams, however, noted that many low-income Canadians receive provincial benefits that allow them to obtain medically necessary services such as eyeglasses or drugs that they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford. Refugees who have no income can't qualify for provincial insurance and now won't have federal help either.
She believes public health might even be jeopardized if refugees become sick and put off seeking early treatment believing they can't access it, then burden the health care system by seeking more acute treatment in hospitals.
On Wednesday, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care also unveiled a plan to monitor the health consequences of the cuts.
“We are not giving up,” said Dr. Philip Berger, the chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“Perhaps when the government sees, quite literally, the devastating and lethal impact of these cuts, it will do the right thing and restore basic health coverage to all refugees," he said in a press release.