OTTAWA - Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is defending the Conservative government's decision to reduce health coverage for refugee claimants.

Benefits under the interim federal health program, which provides extended health-care benefits to refugees, are to be cut as of Saturday.

After that, refugees will see their health-care coverage limited to emergency services, or if their care is required to prevent or treat a disease that could endanger the public.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews is urging the federal government to reverse its decision to ''significantly reduce'' health coverage for refugee claimants.

"In effect, this policy change will create a class system for health care in Canada," she wrote in a letter to Kenney and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

But Kenney says he doesn't understand why the provinces are more concerned about providing supplementary health benefits like dental care and eye care to rejected asylum seekers than to their own citizens.

"Their own citizens, including seniors on fixed incomes, don't get these supplemental benefits," he told a news conference.

"So why should they be forced to pay for them through their taxes for, for example, rejected asylum claimants? So I think that perhaps some of the provinces who are raising this have put their priority in the wrong place. They should be more focused on their own citizens and residents than people who, in many cases we're here talking about, (are) effectively illegal immigrants. That is to say, rejected asylum claimants who are under removal orders from Canada.

"The real question is: Why were we providing them with tax-funded health insurance in the past?"

And he said extended benefits for refugees are better than those received by most Canadians.

Several doctors released statements on Friday opposing the cuts.

"Why is minister Kenney persisting with interim federal health program cuts in the face of near-uniform opposition from national health organizations and now the governments of Ontario and Quebec?" Dr. Philip Berger, head of family medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, wrote in a statement.

The changes "have nothing to do with equity and only to do with hurting refugees including pregnant women and their babies," he added.

Berger said opponents of the cuts plan to continue to dog government MPs across the country to show their opposition.

"The interventions at Conservative MP events across Canada will continue indefinitely."

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